Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz speaks with his agents in La Joya, Tex., on Aug. 10, 2021. (Go Nakamura for The Washington Post)
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Border restrictions set by the Biden administration in early January have led to a large drop in the number of Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan migrants crossing into the United States illegally this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data released Wednesday.

Unlawful crossings by migrants from the four nations fell from 84,190 in December to 2,050 during February, CBP data shows.

The figures provide a boost to Biden administration officials at a time when their border measures are facing court challenges and scalding criticism from Republicans and Democrats.

The Republican opposition was visible at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday in McAllen, Tex., an event whose stated purpose was to blame Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for provoking a crisis at the border. Republicans took turns excoriating the administration for the record migration influx during President Biden’s first two years in office, ignoring the reductions of the past two months.

Democratic members skipped the meeting entirely, accusing Republicans of staging a platform to “score political points,” as some members of the president’s party have slammed Biden for adopting enforcement policies they liken to those of the Trump administration.

Biden has taken a turn toward the political center on immigration enforcement this year, moves that appear designed in part to shore up a political vulnerability for the White House ahead of the 2024 election. The administration is also bracing for a potential migration surge after May 11, the date it has set for the expiration of pandemic-related health restrictions along the border.

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told Republicans during Wednesday’s hearing that a lack of enforcement consequences, such as criminal prosecutions and repatriations, fuels unlawful crossings and hurts border security.

Republicans repeatedly asked Ortiz, an Army veteran who has been with the Border Patrol for more than three decades, to say whether Biden’s policies were to blame for the record number of illegal crossings tallied by U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the president’s first two years in office. Ortiz avoided direct criticism of his superiors, but he said migration trends respond to “push and pull” factors that include global economic trends as well as migrants’ perceptions of how much risk they face of being returned.

“Law enforcement’s pretty simple,” Ortiz said. “You have to have capacity, and you have to have consequences. And any time you don’t have consequences, you’re certainly going to see some increases.”

Some Republicans questioned Ortiz about the discovery of what they called an explosive device on the border in January. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) said Border Patrol agents were “at risk of being blown to pieces by the cartels.” Rep. Morgan Luttrell (Tex.) asked why nobody told Congress or the American public about it.

Ortiz at first said he could not provide information about the alleged incident. He later tweeted that agents had found “a duct-taped ball filled with sand.” He posted a photo and said the discovery never posed a threat.

Rep. J. Luis Correa (Calif), a member of the Homeland Security Committee and ranking Democrat of the subcommittee on border security, said he avoided the hearing because it felt partisan, not a joint effort to shape immigration policy. Correa said that this week he visited the Texas border city of Laredo, where he saw migrants from Ecuador at a detention facility facing possible deportation.

“You saw their hope and their desperation,” he said. “If you give people the opportunity to come into the country legally, they will take that opportunity.”

Biden ran for office promising a more humane approach to immigration enforcement and promptly rolled back many of his predecessor’s policies, including construction of the border wall and a program that required asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico.

In recent months, though, the Biden administration has taken a tougher approach.

In early January, Biden announced a deal that allows authorities to send up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela back across the border to Mexico per month. His administration offset those measures by permitting the same number of migrants from the four countries to seek to enter the country lawfully through the expansion of a humanitarian program known as “parole.”

The steep drop in illegal crossings by Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans bolsters the administration’s approach at a time when GOP officials in 21 states are suing in federal court to block the parole measures that the administration says is the linchpin of its new border strategy. The Republicans say Biden has violated federal laws by creating new immigration programs on the fly that grant entry to immigrants who wouldn’t qualify for a visa.

Biden officials say they are delivering exactly what Republicans have been clamoring for — a reduction in illegal crossings — and the lawsuit jeopardizes the success they’ve had so far. They say Mexico’s willingness to cooperate on enforcement is contingent on the parole program, and they need to give migrants an incentive to apply for permission to live and work in the United States legally to discourage illegal entries.

The latest CBP statistics show that the number of migrants the administration is allowing to enter legally is lower than the number it was apprehending monthly after an illegal crossing. Last month, 35,424 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela were processed as “inadmissible” by CBP officers along the border and at U.S. airports, up from 13,056 in December, CBP data shows. Those figures include migrants allowed to enter through the parole program as well as individuals granted humanitarian exceptions to the pandemic-era health restrictions known as Title 42.

Overall the number of migrants encountered by CBP at ports of entry or between them was down about 1 percent to 154,998 — high by historic standards but one of the lowest monthly totals since Biden took office.

The Biden administration continues to rely on Title 42 as its primary enforcement tool along the Mexican border. The policy allows authorities to quickly expel border-crossers back to their home countries or Mexico. Biden officials have made broad exemptions for migrants who are considered vulnerable, including most family groups.

Biden officials say the Title 42 restrictions are no longer necessary and have contributed to an increase in repeat entries by border-crossers who face no legal consequences, but federal courts have sided with Republicans seeking to keep the measures in place.

The administration has proposed a rule restricting asylum access that is crafted in part to give CBP an enforcement tool to replace Title 42. The measure would penalize asylum seekers who cross illegally or decline to seek protection in nations they pass through on their way to the U.S. border. The restrictions can take effect after a public comment period.

Immigrant advocates and some Democrats have been outraged by the proposal to limit asylum claims, along with internal discussions to reopen short-term detention centers for migrant families.

New technology is playing a central role in the administration’s border-management plans. Authorities are directing migrants to seek an appointment by using an online mobile app, CBP One, that gathers data and channels applicants to specific U.S. border crossings.

The number of people using the app far outstrips the number of available appointments, however, and users say the app has been plagued by glitches. Migrants’ frustration with the app and the appointment system has been building. On Sunday, hundreds of migrants crowded onto the bridge connecting Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez with El Paso, pleading with authorities to allow them to pass.

CBP temporarily closed the border crossing, and officials said later that the rush to the border was apparently sparked by a false rumor.