The number of migrants taken into custody along the southern U.S. border soared to nearly 1 million during the government’s fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data released Tuesday.
Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, told reporters at a White House briefing that more than 52,000 migrants were taken into custody in September at U.S. ports of entry and between them, a decline of 18 percent from August.
Overall, U.S. border authorities made 977,509 arrests during fiscal 2019, up 88 percent from last year and the highest total since 2007. Morgan called it a “staggering” increase.
“These are numbers no immigration system in the world is designed to handle,” he said.
Arrests by U.S. border agents reached an all-time high of 1.6 million in 2000, but Department of Homeland Security officials insist that the migration wave they faced this year is unlike anything in the past.
A generation ago, most of the migrants crossing the border illegally were single adults from Mexico who could be quickly processed and deported.
This year, Central American parents with children made up the overwhelming majority of border crossers. Instead of seeking to evade capture, many sought out U.S. agents to surrender and stated a fear of being sent home, the first step in seeking asylum or another form of legal protection in the United States.
Court limits on the amount of time minors can be held in CBP custody mean that nearly any parent who arrived with a child could expect to be issued a notice to appear in court and to be released into the U.S. interior within a few days.
Homeland security officials said smuggling organizations have been exploiting this “loophole,” reaping huge profits by marketing an easy trip north.
The surge reached its height in May, when more than 144,000 were taken into custody, including one group of 1,036 that crossed the border into El Paso to surrender.
After that event, President Trump demanded a crackdown, threatening to impose tariffs on Mexican imports if Mexican authorities did not help stem the tide.
The government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador responded by deploying thousands of national guard troops to clamp down on the Central American migrants, while also allowing the United States to expand a program that requires migrants to wait outside U.S. territory while their legal claims are processed.
Under that program, which the Trump administration calls the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” nearly 50,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico, many of them waiting months in dangerous border cities. Trump officials say the program has been effective at deterring migrants who might be trying to game the system with baseless asylum claims.
The legality of the MPP is being challenged in federal courts — an appeals court allowed it to continue temporarily while weighing it — as is a new policy that disqualifies asylum seekers who do not attempt to gain protection in other nations while en route to the U.S. border.
Morgan said that asylum bar would be implemented “this week,” following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that allowed the administration to go forward while legal challenges are pending in federal courts.
Advocates for migrants say the Trump administration has all but slammed the door on migrants fleeing violence and persecution, exposing children and other vulnerable populations to grave risks.
On Tuesday, Morgan said: “The administration’s efforts — they’re working. Four short months ago, our daily apprehensions were close to 5,000. And today . . . it’s below 1,700.”
Morgan said that the figure remained too high and that a more manageable level would be 500 apprehensions per day. The 52,546 enforcement actions CBP tallied in September still rank it higher than any single month during the 2018 fiscal year.
But compared with the rest of fiscal 2019, it was the lowest monthly total and a 65 percent drop from the May peak, Morgan noted. He said the agency had “essentially ended catch-and-release,” the term Trump administration officials use to refer to the practice of releasing border crossers from detention with a notice to appear in court.
“If you come to our borders with a child, it’s no longer an immediate passport into the interior of the United States,” he said.
In another crucial indicator of the change in volume, Morgan said the number of migrants in CBP custody is approximately 4,000, down from 19,000 in early June, when cells were overflowing with families and children in squalid conditions.
Morgan also told reporters that the administration has completed 71 of the 450 miles of “beautiful” new border barriers CBP plans to complete by the end of 2020.
Asked about the president’s promises that Mexico would pay for the structure, Morgan said he “didn’t care” how the wall would be funded.
“I’m the commissioner of CBP,” he said. “That’s a political thing to me. . . . I don’t care who’s paying for the wall. All I care about is that it’s being built.”
As the acting CBP chief, Morgan has attended meetings at the White House in recent weeks to discuss the administration’s concerns about wall funding, including a gathering Trump adviser Jared Kushner led last month at which senior officials outlined a plan to divert $3.6 billion from the Pentagon budget for the second year in a row.
Though Morgan referred to himself as “commissioner” during the White House briefing, he technically is the “Chief Operating Officer and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner,” because he has not received Senate confirmation. Neither he nor any of the other heads of DHS immigration agencies — along with the acting DHS secretary — has been nominated by the White House or been confirmed by Senate vote.