Illegal immigration across the southwest border surged last month as President Trump’s zero tolerance effort crumbled and smugglers and migrant families rushed to take advantage of renewed “catch-and-release” loopholes.
Border officials acknowledged a “crisis” as the number of families reached record levels, topping even the worst days of the Obama administration.
With a month still to go in this fiscal year the Border Patrol has already caught more than 90,000 “family units” of parents and children traveling together, higher than the approximately 77,700 nabbed in 2016.
Border officials expressed frustration at their lack of power to stem the flow, saying that until Congress or the courts impose serious penalties such as detention and swift deportation, the families and children are going to keep coming.
It’s so bad that caravans of families like the one that drew headlines this summer have become commonplace. Authorities reported groups of 65, 65, 66, 96 and 163 illegal immigrants caught so far in September some of them with children as young as four months, carried through the hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona.
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the numbers were “expected,” and blamed both loopholes in the law, and the highlighting of those loopholes over the last few months, when immigrant-rights activists and members of Congress from both parties defeated the president’s zero tolerance policy.
“That’s a result of the continued loophole we have with the inability to detain family units ... and frankly the highlighting of that loophole over the summer,” the commissioner said.
The raw numbers show the Border Patrol caught 37,544 illegal immigrants in August, tracking what the government says are normal seasonal patterns. But the real stunners came in the arrest of 12,774 “family units” of parents and children up 38 percent compared to July and another 4,396 Unaccompanied Alien Children, or children traveling without parents, which was an 11.6 percent increase.
At the ports of entry, meanwhile, officers encountered 9,016 unauthorized migrants, including 3,181 family members units and 376 UAC.
Officials believe that the number of people caught trying to sneak in is a rough yardstick for the overall flow, so a rise in apprehensions signals a rise in overall illegal immigration.
The families and children are somewhat different, though.
The smuggling cartels that control the routes encourage them to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, knowing they will get lax treatment. Mr. McAleenan said smugglers also use the migrants as a distraction for agents, then sneak other contraband, such as drugs or higher-value illegal immigrants through during those times.
The loopholes the migrants are using are well-known at this point.
Under federal law UAC have to be quickly released from immigration custody. And under a federal judge’s ruling in 2015, families are also usually released from custody. In both cases they quickly disappear into the shadows, not bothering to show up for their deportation hearings.
Of nearly 95,000 Central American family members from Central America nabbed in 2017, 99 percent of them are still in the U.S. today, the government reported. For the more than 30,000 UAC nabbed in 2017, 98 percent were still in the U.S. as of June.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said there continues to be a “catch-and-release” problem.
He said the government had a window to change the trajectory last year, when Mr. Trump took office and illegal immigrants, scared of tougher enforcement, stopped coming. But they quickly realized the president’s tough talk was belied by lack of backup from Congress and the enforcement agencies, Mr. Judd said.
“Congress obviously didn’t pass laws to close loopholes and the agency failed to implement policies or operations supporting the president’s vision. Instead, the agency’s inaction make the president’s tough talk seem like nothing more than words that can be ignored,” Mr. Judd said.
The Trump administration did try to solve the situation earlier this year with its zero tolerance policy, which called for jailing illegal immigrant adults even those who came with children. Because federal jails can’t accommodate children, that meant the families were separated, and the children were put in Health Department-run dorms.
The separations produced a massive outcry from immigrant-rights activists and both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, and a federal judge ordered an end to the practice and demanding the families be reunited.
Mr. Trump also signed an executive order ending the separations but that restored the family “loophole” that has enticed the new wave of migration.
The 90,563 family units apprehended at the border so far easily tops the record set in 2016, when the total for the full fiscal year was 77,695. Last year’s total was 90,576. Approximately 43,800 more unauthorized family members were encountered at ports of entry.