Illegal immigration across the southwestern border plummeted over the last year as President Trump’s policies and the coronavirus pandemic took hold — but officials warned they’re already seeing signs of a new surge they said could shatter records.
More migrants were caught last month than in any September since 2006, and acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said that as economies in Latin American worsen from COVID-19, he expects “unprecedented” numbers. “Get ready,” he warned.
Mr. Morgan said the Trump administration has managed to keep the surge at bay, but without mentioning the looming election he sounded a stark warning about what might could happen should those Trump policies disappear, as Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden has vowed.
“Make no mistake, we are in a better position right now because of this administration’s policies,” he said. “These essential tools, like the wall, if we were to remove them we would likely see an influx that overwhelmed even what we saw last year when we saw 150,000 illegal aliens reach our border in a single month.”
He said expanding sanctuary cities, allowing undocumented immigrants to hold jobs, and offering them driver’s licenses and health care will “incentivize a new wave of unprecedented illegal migration.”
CBP officials said what they stop at the border isn’t just an issue for border communities. The drugs they interdict were destined for the interior, as are many of the migrants they catch trying to sneak in.
“CBP is not here to protect the border, CBP is here to protect you,” said Rodney Scott, chief of the Border Patrol.
He pointed to the wall, where he said more than 360 miles have been completed and another 100 are on track for the rest of this year, as an example of a smart investment because it’s a force multiplier.
One 12-mile section of new wall freed up 150 agents to be deployed elsewhere, or the equivalent of a $20 million return on investment each year going forward. He said the wall has an expected life span of more than 30 years.
The cost per mile so far has hovered between $20 million and $25 million.
The drop in illegal border crossings was particularly pronounced during the early months of the coronavirus crisis, as the Trump administration imposed a border shutdown, triggering a section of public health law that allowed unauthorized crossers to be immediately expelled.
In April, border agents and officers nabbed slightly more than 17,000 unauthorized crossers at the southwestern border.
By September, though, that had rebounded to more than 57,000.
For the fiscal year as a whole, Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers encountered 458,088 unauthorized migrants. That’s down from 977,509 in fiscal 2019, and it’s also lower than 2018, which saw 521,090 encounters.
The biggest change, though, was in the composition of the unauthorized crossers.
At the height of last year’s Central American migrant surge, nearly 70% of those caught at the southwestern border were parents and children. Last month, they were just 14%.
But single adults, and particularly Mexican migrants, ticked up over the last year.
One reason is the coronavirus immediate return policy in place, officials said.
In the past, repeat unauthorized crossers would have been more likely to be prosecuted for a federal crime. Entering the country after a prior removal is a felony, for example.
But Chief Scott said during the pandemic, the government isn’t bringing as many prosecutions and recidivism is more than 50% in some regions.
It’s a balancing act — each person prosecuted brings a higher risk of coronavirus spread, because they are in the U.S. But each person quickly pushed back across the border can turn around and try again.
The pandemic also cut the number of legal border entries, with a border shutdown in place for all but essential traffic from Mexico and Canada.
The officials were pressed on whether they are still protecting asylum-seekers who show up at the border during the pandemic.
Mr. Morgan said CBP is following its legal obligations, but also said the number of bogus asylum claims during the 2019 surge meant officers had to be drawn away from other high-priority duties.
He warned that if the stiff policies that helped curtail the 2019 surge disappear, the agency will face that situation again.