Illegal border crossings remained high in May despite Trump's crackdown
By NICK MIROFF | The Washington Post | Published: June 3, 2018
The number of migrants attempting to cross illegally into the United States remained high in May, according to administration officials and Border Patrol agents, an early indication that "zero tolerance" measures separating parents from their children and President Donald Trump's deployment of National Guard troops have not had an immediate deterrent effect.
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to publish its closely watched monthly arrest totals in coming days, and Trump administration officials are bracing for a new eruption from the president. He has treated the statistics as a gauge for the success of his hard-line immigration policies, and when border arrests fell to historic lows in the months after his inauguration last year, Trump touted the decrease as a personal triumph.
Since then, migration trends have reversed. In March and again in April, border arrests exceeded 50,000, the highest monthly totals of Trump's presidency, sending him into fits of rage, aides say. Trump unloaded on DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a Cabinet meeting May 9, scorching her for nearly 30 minutes over the spike in illegal crossings, while demanding she "close" the border.
The Trump administration is preparing to renew its push for an $18 billion border wall plan that would also tighten asylum procedures and overhaul other laws Trump officials say are encouraging illegal behavior. Trump has threatened to shut down the government this fall if Democrats don't provide the funds.
But with midterm elections approaching and the president preparing to campaign on his border crackdown, Nielsen and other Homeland Security officials do not appear to be satisfying his strict enforcement targets. May's arrest totals are expected to be at least as high as the previous two months, administration officials and Border Patrol agents said.
Large groups of Central American migrants have been taken into custody in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in recent weeks, according to Border Patrol agents, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss operations. During one 24-hour span in May, 434 migrants were processed at the Border Patrol station in McAllen, agents said.
"The numbers have been very high," said one agent assigned to the Rio Grande Valley, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal migration. "It's to the point that we have had to bring in buses to come out and load these folks up, or send four of five vans at a time."
Another agent said so many migrants were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley in May that many were diverted to other sections of the border for processing. The Justice Department has reassigned additional prosecutors to the border region to increase the number of migrants it charges with federal crimes, but one veteran border agent said it was "too early to tell" if the tougher enforcement measures were giving pause to migrants thinking of making the journey from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
"It's going to take longer for the message to get back to those countries," the agent said.
On Friday, Homeland Security officials would not say whether the tougher enforcement measures were meeting their goals. They said the May border arrest totals were not ready for publication and they would not confirm whether the figures have been sent to the White House.
"The bottom line is Congress needs to act and close loopholes that serve as a tremendous pull factor for illegal immigration," said Tyler Houlton, a DHS spokesman. "The Trump administration is restoring the rule of law by increasing prosecutions of illegal border crossers."
According to a Trump adviser, the president was warned this spring that illegal border crossings were likely to increase. Trump said at the time he would not be satisfied with any such surge and everything needed to be done to block it. That led to the decision to deploy the National Guard.
The number of illegal border crossings "is going to go higher and higher yet," said the adviser. "You're going to see a line that goes up all summer long."
Trump has not been briefed on the May arrest numbers yet, two advisers said.
In a statement late Friday, Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller blamed Democrats for blocking the president's immigration overhaul.
"The illegal migrant crisis is the exclusive product of Democrats' shameless refusal to close catch-and-release loopholes that cartels exploit to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States at great cost in taxpayer dollars, jobs and, too often, lives," Miller said.
Weak border enforcement remains the biggest incentive to illegal migration, according to Miller. "We must end catch-and-release by reforming our asylum laws, and establishing expedited removal, to stop the smuggling and defend the nation," he said.
As in recent years, many of those taken into custody in May were teenagers or parents traveling with children, and the administration has triggered broad condemnation for separating more families with its push to prosecute anyone who crosses illegally.
More than 10,800 migrant children were in federal custody as of May 31, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, up 21 percent since the end of April. The agency's shelters are 95 percent full and HHS officials say they are preparing to add thousands of additional beds to cope with the increase.
A Border Patrol agent in South Texas said the family separation measures were not being applied as broadly as assumed. Some parents who face federal charges are apart from their children for only several hours, then released and assigned a court date, the agent said.
"To us, that's still 'catch-and-release,' " the agent said. "People are going to continue to come."
Arrests along the Mexico border peaked at more than 1.6 million in 2000, then fell sharply during the Obama administration. During the government's past fiscal year that ended in September, U.S. agents made 303,916 arrests, the lowest total since 1971.
Trump's fixation is driven, in part, by a view that border security is paramount to his most fervent supporters and that immigration is a winning issue for Republican candidates in November's congressional elections.
"I'm very proud to say that we're way down in the people coming across the border," Trump said in January. "We have fewer people trying to come across, because they know it's not going to happen."
The arrest numbers began shooting upward soon after that, from 36,682 in February to 50,296 in March. The yearly total for 2018 is on pace to approach or exceed 400,000, a level more consistent with migration patterns of the past five years, DHS statistics show.
During a visit Thursday to the Nogales border crossing in southern Arizona, Nielsen called the increase in illegal migration a crisis and said Homeland Security officials were working to "end this lawlessness."
The country's borders are being violated "by criminals, by smugglers and by thousands of people who have absolutely no respect for our laws," she said.
"This is changing, it will change, and we will do all that we can to change this," Nielsen added, emphasizing that the "zero-tolerance" approach announced in April will be applied as aggressively as possible.
"If you come here illegally, whether you're single, whether you have a family, whether you're a smuggler or whether you're a trafficker, you've broken the law, so we're prosecuting," she said.
On Friday Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding information on the administration's enforcement efforts, including the number of children who have been separated from their parents and whether there are formal procedures to reunite them.
Border arrests typically rise during spring months, when seasonal labor demands increase. Farms across the Midwest are becoming desperate for workers, with the U.S. unemployment rate at the lowest level since 2000. Lawmakers from both parties have told Nielsen that worker shortages are squeezing an array of industries in their states, and DHS said last week it will issue 15,000 seasonal guest-worker visas.
But border agents said much of the increase this spring seems to be driven by the same groups - families and teenagers traveling alone - who have been straining Homeland Security capacity since the 2014 crisis that left Border Patrol stations overflowing.
Photos of recent mass arrests provided by one agent show migrants of all ages walking through willow groves along the Rio Grande or lined up in federal custody along the river levees, waiting to board government buses.
The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.