The number of unaccompanied minors apprehended crossing the southern U.S. border dropped by nearly half in July from each of the previous two months, Obama administration officials said Thursday.
New figures from Border Patrol show that 5,508 foreign children were taken into federal custody last month, down from more than 10,000 in both May and June. The numbers of adults crossing illegally with their children also fell dramatically, from 16,330 in June to 7,410 in July, according to the data.
Federal officials expressed cautious optimism that they had made progress in stemming the influx of illegal immigrants from Central America, which has increased dramatically in the past few years and created a humanitarian crisis at the border.
“While the decrease in apprehensions in July is good news and reflects a positive trend that we hope continues, the current numbers are still higher than the number of apprehensions for children and adults with children during past years," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. "We continue to have much work to do to address this issue."
Experts said the number of illegal crossings from Mexico into the United States traditionally drops in the summer, due to hot weather and other factors. But the sharp decline has given hopes that some of the Obama administration's efforts to dissuade Central Americans from coming north, including pressure on the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most of the migrants are originating, is paying dividends.
Johnson touted his department's stepped up enforcement campaign, which he said includes faster processing times to deport many of the adults who have been apprehended. However, the unaccompanied children from Central America take longer to deport because federal law mandates they be given a deportation hearing in immigration court and the large number of children has created long backlogs of cases.
All told, nearly 63,000 unaccompanied children and an additional 63,000 adults with children have been apprehended at the southern border since last October, officials said.
The Obama administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to help process the cases and care for the children, but lawmakers failed to agree on a spending plan before leaving Washington for a month-long summer recess. Johnson said that the Department of Homeland Security has reprogrammed $405 million from other programs to deal with the immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
"It is also forcing us to dial back some of the actions we intended to take," he said.
Obama has said he will take executive action to help deal with the border crisis and make other changes to immigration policies in the coming weeks.