The number of people apprehended or denied entry into the U.S. at the Southern border was down 16 percent in January from 2017, new figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show.
Most of those — 35,822 — were those caught once they came into the U.S. About a quarter of them were turned away after they tried to enter with inadmissible documentation or for humanitarian aid.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said in a statement that the numbers are still too high among unaccompanied children and families trying to enter the U.S.
“To secure our borders and make America safer, Congress must act to close these legal loopholes that have created incentives for illegal immigrants and are being exploited by dangerous transnational criminal organizations like MS-13,” Houlton said.
The new report focuses on the three-month period ending in January, in which total apprehensions were down 35 percent from the same period in 2017. The biggest drops were among unaccompanied minors — down 44 percent — and families — down 53 percent.
The Border Patrol has been focusing on unaccompanied minors and families from Central America since 2014, said Victor Manjarrez Jr., associate director of The Center for Law and Human Behavior at The University of Texas at El Paso, which studies border and criminal justice issues.
That year “was kind of hitting its high water mark,” said Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol chief.
“There was simply not enough bed space and they were just releasing people left and right with a promise to show up to a court hearing in six months,” he said. “And the stats indicate that they just don’t show up — most of them. So that was a big deal. That’s why you saw the increase, and I think that’s why you’re seeing a decrease now.”
About half of all unaccompanied minors apprehended were from Guatemala. More than half the families caught at the border were from Guatemala.
Many leave Guatemala because of violence, said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an umbrella organization for immigrant groups across the U.S. and Central America.
In his push for immigration reform, President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13, the U.S.-born, Central American gang for taking advantage of current immigration laws by recruiting unaccompanied minors. He has demanded an end to the visa lottery program, limiting family sponsorship to immediate family members and building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Not everyone agrees on why the numbers have gone down.
Manjarrez said that better conditions in immigrants’ home countries or a “perception of the United States being stronger against them” could explain the decrease.
But the data doesn’t show the complete picture, Chacón said.
“The numbers of detentions and apprehensions that we get to learn from the U.S. Border Patrol data only tell us the picture about people who actually were apprehended,” he said. “But it does not capture the information related to how many people are actually making me into the U.S.”
He also said that stronger immigration enforcement within Mexico could be stopping them before they ever reach the U.S.