Border arrests of migrant families increase 38 percent as Trump administration seeks to expand detention
The number of families arrested for crossing the southern border illegally jumped 38 percent to nearly 12,800 last month, the most since President Donald Trump took office, and the administration sought to cast it as reason to undo a federal settlement preventing the prolonged detention of children.
Though migrant flows usually increase in August, the number of family arrivals is a record for that month, according to the federal statistics Wednesday, which have come to be viewed as an indicator of Trump’s success at securing the border.
The overall number of apprehensions rose 16 percent from July to more than 46,500 in August, which is in line with seasonal trends.
The administration in part blamed the increase in families on the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which in practice has meant the government cannot detain most families until they are deported or gain asylum.
The White House last week published a proposed federal regulation that would allow it to upend that settlement, a move that would likely expand the number of immigrant detention facilities and advocates say it would slash legal protections for children.
Tyler Q. Houlton, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said in a statement that August’s family apprehensions are a “clear indicator that the migration flows are responding to gaps in our nation’s legal framework.”
“Smugglers and traffickers understand our broken immigration laws better than most and know that if a family unit illegally enters the U.S. they are likely to be released into the interior,” he said, blaming the federal settlement for that requirement.
Under that settlement, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in Los Angeles has ruled that immigrant children cannot be jailed in secure facilities for longer than 20 days and should ideally be kept with their parents.
As a result, the administration has had to free many migrant families to pursue their cases in the backlogged civil immigration courts — a process that can take months. Critics say immigrants do not always show up at their hearings and that the practice of so-called “catch and release,” which Trump has vowed to end, encourages migrant families to come here illegally.
The Rio Grande Valley is ground zero for what Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan has called a “crisis of significant proportions.” Agents at the nation’s busiest illegal crossing point said they are on track to detain more immigrant families than in 2014 when the number of Central American parents and children crossing the southern border overwhelmed the government.
“We’re going to hit close to 60,000 by the end of the fiscal year, and that will be way more than in 2014, the crisis year,” said Manuel Padilla Jr., the sector’s Border Patrol chief. “When you catch and release any category of people, that category keeps growing exponentially. And that is what we are seeing with family units.”
The uptick last month is, however, on par or below the number of arrivals during several months of President Barack Obama’s administration, according to federal data. At the height of the 2014 surge, more than 16,300 family units were detained that June. In December 2016, as Trump was set to take office with promises of slashing illegal immigration, more than 16,100 were apprehended.
The number of families coming here dropped to record lows after Trump’s inauguration when his administration threatened to separate parents and children at the southern border. Though the White House publicly backed off amid outrage, it quietly began doing so in a Texas pilot program last fall before expanding the policy across the border this spring.
The sharp rise of families in August comes just two months after Trump abruptly ended that controversial separation policy, widely regarded as one of his administration’s biggest debacles and one that spurred bipartisan furor.
More than 2,500 children were removed from their parents and the government has struggled to reunite them. Two months after a federal judge’s deadline to do so, more than 300 children remain in federal custody after their parents were deported alone. Many of the adults have yet to be found.
White House officials have characterized that “zero tolerance” practice, in which parents were briefly imprisoned and their children placed in federal foster care, as a consequence of the Flores Settlement, because the government could not detain families together for more than several weeks.
Padilla, the Rio Grande Valley chief, blamed the end of that policy for spurring the increase of families last month.
“It’s absolutely the end of the zero tolerance policy that is causing it,” he said.
Federal statistics show the number of families coming here stayed relatively steady during the height of the policy in May and June with just more than 9,400 apprehensions each month, before dipping 2 percent in July and rising dramatically in August.
At the peak of the separations this summer, the administration struggled to accommodate the influx of children taken from their parents in addition to those who come here alone, and established a tent camp for immigrant children in El Paso.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said that it would more than triple that camp at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Land Port of Entry from 1,200 beds to as many as 3,800.
Though Trump ended the separation policy in June, a record more than 12,800 children currently remain in more than 100 federal foster shelters across the country, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency of Health and Human Services in charge of unaccompanied minors.
Unlike family arrivals, however, the number of unaccompanied children coming here has stayed relatively flat, increasing 12 percent from July to about 4,400 in August.
Government data released to the New York Times Wednesday suggested the facilities are nearing capacity because the number of unaccompanied children released from federal shelters each month have plummeted by about two-thirds since last year.
Most children are usually released to relatives after about a month in government care, but their stay in federal shelters has increased.
Advocates have blamed in part a new information-sharing agreement between Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security that they say could frighten potential relatives from claiming children because they worry their information will be used to deport them.
The Trump administration has also asked the Pentagon to host immigrant children on military bases, including two in Texas, but the government has not yet begun construction on any of the facilities.
On Tuesday, the office of Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, released a budget document showing that the Department of Homeland Security this summer transferred almost $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention and removal purposes.
Merkley, appearing on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the East Coast, said the administration was taking money from FEMA’S “response and recovery” and “working hard to find funds for additional detention camps.”
Houlton, the Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said on Twitter that money was not from funds appropriated for disaster relief, calling it a “sorry attempt to push a false agenda.”