Administration working to close immigration ‘loopholes’ – but border is still a crisis, officials say

International travelers (reflected in a closed door) arrive on the day that U.S. President Donald Trump’s limited travel ban, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, goes into effect, at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

EL PASO, Texas – Unauthorized migration across the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped significantly since a record influx of 140,000 people in May, but the border remains “in crisis” and Congress needs to act to address it, Trump administration officials said here Tuesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took 970,000 people into custody along the southern border in the past year – more than double the previous year’s total – including a “record-breaking” number of families, CBP’s acting commissioner Mark Morgan said. Border crossings in fiscal 2019 hit their highest number in more than a decade, despite a continuous drop in border crossings during the past four months, Morgan said.

Morgan, who spoke at a news conference in front of the steel-and-concrete border barrier that separates this Texas border city from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, railed against Congress for sitting “idly by” while immigration authorities grappled with historic influxes of migrants. Morgan said Congress instead should pass legislation that the Trump administration believes will deter future migration.

Authorities credit the significant drop in border crossings in recent months to the administration’s initiatives to close what Morgan called “loopholes” in the immigration system – exceptions within U.S. law that officials say draw people to the country. Morgan also said new partnerships with Mexico and Central American governments have made a difference because those countries have strengthened border security and slowed the northbound migration flow.

“This administration’s strategies brought dramatic results,” Morgan said. “We’re closing the loopholes that are driving these individuals to turn their lives over to the cartels. . . . We have essentially ended catch and release along the southwest border,” he said, referring to the U.S. Border Patrol’s typical practice of releasing asylum-seeking families that have children and pose no security threat while they await court hearings.

The nearly 1 million people taken into custody along the southwest border included 851,000 apprehended between official entry points and 126,000 deemed inadmissible when they presented themselves at border crossings, according to CBP statistics released earlier this month.

The Trump administration has sought to dramatically curb migration through measures aimed at restricting the routes through which migrants and asylum seekers can remain in the United States. Administration officials have claimed that migrant families exploit existing protections for children to take advantage of U.S. asylum opportunities.

Earlier this year, the administration launched the experimental Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy also known as “Remain in Mexico,” that has forced thousands of migrants back across the border into Mexican cities while their cases are adjudicated in U.S. immigration courts.

“The message that is going out now is that if you grab a kid, it is not an automatic passport to the United States,” Morgan said. He urged Congress to make it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum, eliminate certain legal protections for migrant children so that it would be easier to detain them and their families for longer, and “support ICE,” the immigration enforcement agency responsible for deportations.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he does not understand why the administration “keeps patting themselves on the back for putting more and more people in harm’s way.”

“Congress has no intention of rubber-stamping the administration’s terrible immigration policies that would dramatically expand family detention, indefinitely lock up children and send migrants into dangerous conditions,” Thompson said. “We will, however, continue the work we have been doing to improve the conditions at the border for families and children in our care.”

Morgan’s tone on Tuesday was at times defiant and at other moments almost celebratory – a marked shift from the speech acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan delivered in the same spot in March, when he declared the U.S. immigration enforcement system to be so overwhelmed that it had reached “the breaking point.”

Border crossings declined sharply over the summer, as Mexico agreed to step up its interdiction efforts and the United States expanded the Remain in Mexico policy.

In September, the last month of the government’s fiscal year, the number of border crossers taken into custody dropped to about 52,000. Even with the decline, it was the highest number of migrants taken into custody during any September since 2007, according to CBP statistics.

Most asylum seekers have come from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But as the apprehensions of Central American families have decreased in recent months, officials have noticed an uptick in the number of Mexican families seeking asylum. The increase has surfaced from CBP officials speaking privately, but Morgan did not mention the trend in his remarks Tuesday.

In August, Mexico became the largest single source of border crossers.

Asked about the rise, Morgan credited the cartels’ sophistication, saying they had turned their attention to recruiting Mexican migrants after the Trump administration made it more difficult for Central American migrants to come.

“The Mexican cartels . . . could really teach a business class at Harvard,” Morgan said. “We’re trying to develop new initiatives within the current legal framework that we can apply to the Mexican families as well.”

The administration implemented a rule in July that requires migrants to seek asylum in the first country they pass through on their way to the U.S. border, and the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the policy to remain in place during court challenges. The rule makes it nearly impossible for non-Mexicans to pass the initial asylum screening at the border.

Thousands of Mexican adults and children have lined up at U.S. border crossings to apply for asylum in recent weeks, many saying they are fleeing the country’s endemic corruption and drug violence.

The spot that Morgan selected to address reporters was a few hundred yards from a sprawling tent encampment just across the border, where approximately 200 asylum seekers are taking refuge.

Department of Homeland Security officials on Monday announced that the agency is expanding the MPP program to include the port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas, bringing the total number of sites to six. Morgan said the government is working with “local leadership” in the Mexican cities across the border “to make sure they have the capacity” to absorb the asylum seekers.

The administration earlier this month also launched a pilot project in El Paso to accelerate the asylum review process for Central Americans. The program, which seeks to both remove migrants rapidly from the United States and deter others from coming, aims to provide asylum seekers with a decision on their case within 10 days of their request, rather than adding new cases to the million-long immigration court backlog.

Asylum cases typically take months or years to adjudicate, in part because of the challenges of gathering paperwork and other evidence to meet the burden of proof the courts require. Civil rights groups have decried the accelerated timeline as a denial of due process.

CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez said “several dozen” people have gone through the pilot program thus far.

“The intent is to, once we solidify and create confidence in how it is we’re rolling out these efforts here in El Paso, that we’re going to look to effectuate them across other parts of the border where we’re continually getting challenged,” Perez said.

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Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso. Hauslohner reported from Washington.

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