The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arrests along Mexico border are falling, preliminary figures show

Gabriela Pinelo and her son Gervin, 3, of Guatemala, before being transported by U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso on Thursday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The number of migrant families crossing the border illegally has been falling in recent weeks, according to preliminary figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, though U.S. officials say it is too soon to get a full picture of the impact on migration trends from President Trump’s deal with Mexico.

U.S. authorities detained more than 85,000 “family unit” members at the border in May, an average of nearly 2,800 per day. That number has declined about 13 percent since the beginning of June, a period during which Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico and the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to an immigration crackdown to avoid the penalty.

The Washington Post traveled to the Mexico-Guatemala border to see how Mexican authorities are trying to stem the flow of migrants. (Video: The Washington Post)

Overall, U.S. officials say they are expecting a 15 to 20 percent decline in border arrests from May, when authorities detained more than 144,000 and migration levels reached their highest point since 2006. The portion of migrants arriving as part of a family group has reached unprecedented levels in recent months, overwhelming U.S. border authorities who say they are ill-equipped to care for so many parents with children.

How Mexico talked Trump out of tariff threat

Since the June 7 immigration deal with Trump, Mexico has begun to deploy thousands of national-guard forces to set up highway checkpoints and catch more Central American migrants as they head northward toward the U.S. border. The United States also has begun to send more asylum seekers back across the border into Mexico to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, an expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program that prevents the migrants from staying in the United States while they go through the asylum process.

The Mexican immigration enforcement crackdown has been concentrated in southern Mexico, so U.S. officials say it could take several weeks for the full effect of the effort to show up as a reduction in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. As the United States turns more people away to Mexico during their asylum process, authorities hope it will act as a deterrent.

“We are seeing initial actions and we are seeing some signs they’re having an impact,” said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary figures that are not yet public. “But I think it’s still too early to tell.”

Border arrests typically surge in the spring, when demand for U.S. farm labor grows, then subside during peak summer months. Border arrests declined 17 percent from May 2018 to June 2018, an indication that the expected decline this month could follow that same trend.

But Department of Homeland Security officials say current migration patterns are less linked to seasonal labor demand than in the past, instead driven by the widespread view in Central America that those who migrate with children have an opportunity now to gain entry to the United States by taking advantage of legal gaps in the U.S. immigration system.

If the June arrest numbers continue to decline, it would be the first month this year that Customs and Border Protection has recorded a decrease in enforcement actions.

During the negotiations to avert tariffs, White House officials told Mexico that Trump wanted to see border crossings back at the historic lows tallied during 2017.

The Mexican government did not commit to a specific, numerical enforcement goal during the negotiations, a senior Mexican official said Monday. But Mexico has assured the United States that its enforcement efforts will deliver the major reductions in migration levels Trump is demanding.

Mexico aims to avert tariffs with deal to overhaul asylum rules across region

The United States, via the MPP program, has been sending about 250 asylum seekers back to Mexico per day, but U.S. officials plan to increase that to at least 1,000 per day in coming weeks.

The procedure is facing legal challenges, and critics say it exposes vulnerable families to grave danger by stranding them in mafia-dominated Mexican border cities with few services and little protection. Local Mexican officials say they are ill-prepared for a massive return of migrants.

A senior Mexican official told reporters Monday that the Mexican government’s efforts had cut daily arrests at the U.S. border from 4,500 to 2,600, but U.S. officials said those figures were not an accurate reflection of daily averages since the two countries reached their accord.

Mexican officials said Monday that their enforcement efforts would not only target the highways and rail lines of southern Mexico, noting that some of the country’s national-guard units would deploy to the U.S. border to increase enforcement.