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Arrests along Mexico border drop sharply under Trump, new statistics show

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 12/5/2017 Nick Miroff
a close up of a man holding a stop sign at night: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents enter a Dallas apartment complex in 2015. © LM Otero/AP U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents enter a Dallas apartment complex in 2015.

The number of people caught trying to sneak over the border from Mexico has fallen to the lowest level in 46 years, according to Homeland Security statistics released Tuesday that offer the first comprehensive look at how immigration enforcement is changing under the Trump administration.

During the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. border agents made 310,531 arrests, a decline of 24 percent from the previous year and the fewest overall since 1971. The figures show a sharp drop in apprehensions immediately after President Trump’s election win, possibly reflecting the deterrent effect of his rhetoric on would-be border crossers, though starting in May the number of people taken into custody began increasing again.

Arrests of foreigners living illegally in the United States have surged under Trump. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers made 110,568 arrests between the inauguration and the end of September, according to the figures published Tuesday, a 42 percent increase over the same period during the previous year.

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Tom Homan, ICE’s temporary director and Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, praised the president and gave a vigorous defense of ICE’s more aggressive approach.

“This president, like him or love him, is doing the right thing,” Homan told reporters at a news conference Tuesday in Washington, accompanied by the heads of the U.S. Border Patrol and Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

“A 45-year low in border crossings? That’s not a coincidence,” Homan said. “That’s based on this president and his belief and letting the men and women of ICE and the Border Patrol do their job.”

Trump’s sweeping promises to crack down on illegal immigration fueled his presidential campaign and are at the center of his most ambitious domestic policy proposals, including construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. Asked whether such a barrier was justifiable given its high cost and the decline in illegal immigration, DHS officials endorsed the president’s plan.

“In this society, we use walls and fences to protect things. It shouldn’t be different on the border,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Despite the decline in arrests, Vitiello said his officers face growing dangers. During fiscal 2017, Border Patrol agents were assaulted 847 times, a 45 percent jump, according to the agency’s statistics. He said the use of firearms by agents dropped to a record low of 17 incidents during the same period, down from 55 in 2012 when a spate of fatal cross-border shootings forced the agency to change its use-of-force policies.

Vitiello said the numbers were evidence that the changes were working.

The sharp decline in illegal crossings only casts more doubt on the wisdom of building a border wall, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

“It’s a throwback response to yesterday’s problems,” she said, arguing that the money would be better spent addressing what accounts for a growing share of illegal migration: families with children fleeing rampant violence and dismal poverty in Central America.

The statistics released Tuesday show Mexican nationals account for a diminishing share of those arrested along the border. During fiscal 2017, 58 percent were from countries “other than Mexico,” CBP reported, led by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Of those taken into custody, 10 percent had been apprehended on at least one other occasion, down from 12 percent the year before. DHS officials use this “recidivism” rate as a gauge of how difficult it is to cross into the United States illegally, and recent DHS studies have concluded the border is tougher than ever to sneak across.

Trump has asked Congress to fund 10,000 more ICE officers and an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents to meet expanded enforcement goals.

Apprehensions by Border Patrol agents peaked at more than 1.6 million in 2000, and began falling substantially after 2008. The previous low point was 331,333 arrests, during fiscal 2015. Experts attribute the decline to tougher U.S. enforcement, improving job prospects in Mexico and long-term demographic changes that have driven down the country’s birthrate.

Still, the nearly 25 percent drop in border arrests marks one of the sharpest year-to-year changes on record. Tuesday’s data release also provides the clearest look at how the Trump administration is tightening immigration far beyond the border.

Soon after the election, Trump pledged to deport or incarcerate “probably 2 million” foreigners with criminal records who he said were gang members and drug dealers, saying the number would be “as high as 3 million.”

But the number of people ICE removed from the United States declined about 6 percent during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, in part because the drop in illegal border crossings left the agency with fewer people to deport.

ICE said the number of “criminal aliens” it deported increased to 67,859 during fiscal 2017, a 12.5 percent increase over the previous year. But the number of arrests made by ICE agents for “administrative” reasons surged 30 percent, a category of foreigners whose offenses are typically immigration-related violations, as opposed to conventional criminal charges.

Homan said ICE is simply enforcing the country’s existing immigration laws with a rigor that was lacking under the Obama administration. “There’s no population that’s off the table,” he said.

“If you’re in the country illegally, we’re looking for you and we’re looking to apprehend you.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Tuesday also published its end-of-year drug seizure totals.

The numbers showed an alarming increase in seizures of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl in recent years, from 2 pounds in 2013 to 1,485 pounds last year. The amount of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine confiscated along the border increased as well, but marijuana declined.


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