Agents working in the Rio Grande Valley, the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal crossings, say they’ve seen more families turn themselves in and ask for asylum in recent weeks, a potential indication that the policy reversal has encouraged more Central Americans to head north.
“They keep coming and coming,” said one agent. “There were some really large groups. Any time you have to use buses to come and pick them up, that’s not a good sign.”
The agent and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
An administration official briefed on the trend confirmed the increase, but the official said they had not seen August’s final numbers.
Trump has treated the monthly arrest totals as a barometer for his administration’s performance on immigration enforcement, and this year’s increases have put him in a foul mood, angry that he cannot campaign on a record of tougher border security.
The president’s focus on the numbers has converted the publication of a statistic that was once purview of academics and security analysts into a highly anticipated monthly event, akin to release of trade data or the unemployment rate.
Trump blew up at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in May after getting the prior month’s report, ordering her to “close” the border, as arrests topped 50,000 for three consecutive months.
Those numbers dipped in June and July, a lull consistent with seasonal patterns. But illegal migration typically rebounds in late summer, increasing during August in five of the past six years, and it’s not clear to what extent last month’s totals will parallel that trend.
“We are getting hit hard,” said another agent in South Texas who observed a busy August at the border.
Trump boasted last year when arrests dropped to their lowest mark since 1971, but he ceased touting his border success when they returned to levels consistent with President Obama’s second term, or surpassed those totals some months.
The president last week resumed threats to shut down the federal government if lawmakers do not approve funds for his border wall plan, telling reporters, “If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”
The border arrest figures due this week will be closely watched for the number of migrants arrested who were part of a “family unit” consisting of at least one parent and child. The administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown launched in May attempted to deter migrant families by ramping up prosecutions of mothers and fathers who bring children. The government separated more than 2,500 families before Trump’s executive order in June halted the practice amid an uproar.
Since then Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security officials have warned that the policy’s reversal would be interpreted by smuggling guides and would-be migrants as an enticement to make an illegal journey. Many of the families — the majority from the hyperviolent Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — say they are fleeing death threats and the takeover of their communities by gangs.
Because migrants typically need two to four weeks to travel from Central America to the U.S. border, many of those arriving in August probably made their decisions after the family separation crackdown was suspended.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the August numbers, and whether that information has been sent to the president. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Agents in South Texas said arrests last month still appear to be below 2014 levels, when underage Central American migrants and parents traveling with children overwhelmed the Border Patrol’s ability to process them.
While the number of total apprehensions along the border remains lower than 2014, family groups represent a higher percentage of those taken into custody, DHS statistics show.
Manuel Padilla, the Border Patrol sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley, said last month that the number of Central American families coming across the border has exceeded the 2014 high-water mark.
“We have a situation with family units that keeps increasing and increasing exponentially,” he said during an interview with a local radio broadcaster, 710 KURV. “This problem is not going to go away until we see some sort of immigration reform and border security,” he said.
Padilla’s Twitter account is a vivid depiction of the latest surge. On Aug. 21 he shared a photograph showing a large group of teenagers and women with children, including several toddlers, in Border Patrol custody.
“Just Now!,” the tweet read. “(Border Patrol agents) apprehended a group of 54 illegal aliens in Hidalgo, TX consisting of Family Units and Unaccompanied Children. All from Guatemala.”
Padilla recently posted another photo showing 96 detained migrants lined up in the dust along the border fence. “All family units and unaccompanied children,” he wrote. “RGV South Texas continues to be the most volatile area along entire border.”
The trend appears to continue in September, as Padilla reported 2,200 arrests during Labor Day weekend in his sector, which spans the lower 320 miles of the Rio Grande’s meandering international boundary.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services gave official notice last week that they are seeking to overhaul court-imposed limitations on their ability to keep children in immigration jails. That would allow the government to hold families while their asylum claims are adjudicated, a change the administration says is necessary to make sure those asylum seekers can’t make frivolous claims to avoid deportation.
“Because of restrictive judicial orders and catch and release loopholes that leave us with no recourse for removal we are seeing a record number of family units apprehended at the Southwest border,” Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for DHS, said in a statement.
“Secretary Nielsen has been urging Congress to act and close these loopholes that pull family units to the United States,” she said.
Waldman declined to comment on the August border arrest figures and said the agency would not discuss the numbers before they are finalized.