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Migrant arrests at the U.S. border rose to a 13-month high in September

People walk across the Paso del Norte border crossing bridge toward El Paso on Sept. 17. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The number of migrants that U.S. border agents took into custody rose to a 13-month high in September, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures published Wednesday that belie President Trump’s attempts to tout his enforcement record on the campaign trail.

Since late March, the Trump administration has used emergency pandemic restrictions along the southwestern border that allow agents to “expel” most migrants back to Mexico in a matter of hours. After an initial drop in border crossings this past spring, arrests have been steadily rising, driven mostly by Mexican adults trying to enter the United States again and again.

The CBP figures show agents made 54,771 apprehensions along the Mexican border last month, the highest total for the month of September since 2006. The figure tallies arrests, not separate individuals, and CBP figures show that the number of repeat crossers — known as the “recidivism rate” — has soared to 37 percent since the expulsion policy started in late March. Last year, the recidivism rate was 7 percent.

“As economic conditions are worsening in Mexico and the entire Western Hemisphere due to covid, get ready,” said Mark Morgan, CBP’s senior official performing the duties of the acting commissioner, speaking to reporters in Tucson and noting that the overwhelming majority of people trying to enter the country now are doing so for economic reasons. “We’re already seeing the numbers increase.”

During the 2020 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, CBP recorded 458,088 arrests and detentions, a 53 percent decline from 2019, when nearly 1 million migrants were taken into custody during a record surge of Central American families and children crossing the U.S. border.

Those families typically turned themselves in to border agents after crossing so as to apply for humanitarian protections or file asylum claims. Now the majority of border-crossers are once again single Mexican adults, and they are far more likely to try to sneak into the country by hiding in vehicles or trekking through remote desert and mountain areas, a trend that has increased the number of migrants dying while trying to reach the United States.

CBP officials acknowledged the recidivism rate now exceeds 50 percent in some urban areas.

“Our recidivism has gone up dramatically, but it’s very geographically specific,” said Rodney Scott, chief of the Border Patrol, who described the trend as an acceptable trade-off to an enforcement-and-prosecution model that would potentially expose more people to the novel coronavirus. “We’re returning people very, very quickly, but our ability and willingness, if you will, to prosecute people, to have a consequence to the illegal activity of crossing the border, has been reduced.”

Scott said the approach — which aims to avoid the risk of having courts, prisons and detention centers affected by potential coronavirus outbreaks — assumes a little more risk in the area of people who are turned away potentially trying to come back.

Andrew Meehan, who served as spokesman for CBP and the Department of Homeland Security until last year, said the increase in apprehensions was another sign that migration trends are often driven by deficiencies in U.S. enforcement and push factors such as poverty and violence.

“The consequence of those gaps are increased recidivism rates, and more dangerous and expensive methods of human smuggling, such as tractor trailers or traversing through more isolated, remote parts of the border,” Meehan said. “A holistic approach to border security with congressional action that extends beyond the U.S. border and includes regional partnerships with Mexico and Central America is what’s required.”

Morgan defended the administration’s “expulsion” policy, which suspends normal immigration proceedings and the chance for migrants seeking humanitarian protections to access U.S. courts.

Morgan said the pandemic-related measures would remain in place until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructs CBP to lift them. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the White House and immigration enforcement officials directed CDC officials to order the border restrictions, which CDC officials did not view as necessary.

Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy organization, noted that despite the increase in recent months, border arrests remain low relative to the past several decades. The 400,651 arrests recorded by the Border Patrol last year was the sixth-lowest total for any year since 1972.

Isacson noted the change from asylum-seeking families to single adults attempting to evade capture makes the journey more lethal to migrants.

“As migrants not seeking asylum tend to seek to avoid apprehension, we can expect more migrants to take very dangerous desert routes, where they’re at greater risk of death from dehydration and exposure on U.S. soil,” he said.

DHS officials say the increase in crossings through remote areas and tractor-trailer smuggling incidents are a direct result of Trump’s border barrier. Construction crews have completed more than 360 miles of new fencing since Trump took office, according to the latest figures, which DHS officials say give them an enforcement advantage over smuggling organizations.

CBP interdicted 276 tractor-trailer trucks that were participating in smuggling operations last year, making 4,589 arrests, an increase of 36 percent over the previous year, according to the agency’s figures. The number of boats interdicted attempting to land on the beaches of Southern California jumped 82 percent last year. “We’re getting busier on the water now,” said Dennis Michellini, the head of CBP’s air and marine operations.

CBP officials also recorded major shifts in narcotics seizures. The amount of cocaine confiscated fell 43 percent last year, and heroin declined 7 percent.

Conversely, seizures of methamphetamine jumped 25 percent, and fentanyl seizures soared 71 percent, fueled by demand for the powerful, compact opioid, and the benefit of its concealability for traffickers.