WASHINGTON—Large groups of migrants from Central America, traveling by bus through Mexico, have become the new norm in illegal border crossings into the United States.
In one instance, border agents encountered 334 illegal immigrants who had been dropped off by eight commercial buses right at the U.S.–Mexico border, Kevin McAleenan, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner, said in a Senate hearing on March 6.
More than 70 large groups (of 100 or more migrants) have been apprehended by Border Patrol so far this fiscal year—equaling more than 12,000 apprehensions. That compares to a total of 13 large groups in all of fiscal 2018.
In February alone, Border Patrol apprehended more than 66,000 people crossing the border illegally. A further 10,000 were detained after presenting at ports of entry without legal paperwork to enter the United States.
“At the current pace, we are on track to encounter close to one million illegal aliens at our southern border this year,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the House Homeland Security Committee on March 6.
El Paso Uptick
A recent 24-hour surge in El Paso, Texas, highlighted the issue. Border Patrol agents were inundated with several large groups of illegal aliens starting late on March 5.
Two large groups—consisting primarily of Central American families and unaccompanied minors—crossed the border fence near downtown El Paso. The first group contained 112 people and the second 252, according to CBP. Several smaller groups also crossed in different locations along the El Paso metro area. In one of the groups, border agents discovered an unaccompanied 2-year-old child.
In total, more than 700 illegal aliens were apprehended in the 24-hour period.
“While dealing with this influx of illegal aliens, Border Patrol agents also arrested two convicted sex offenders attempting to enter illegally, while the agents were preoccupied with the large groups,” CBP said in a statement. “Both sex offenders were arrested in different groups.”
Both subjects had previously served jail time in the United States before being deported, according to CBP.
Another six people were arrested further east, including one who was a U.S. citizen with a lengthy criminal record and an outstanding federal warrant for escape.
The El Paso sector is quickly becoming the second-busiest crossing point after the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. More than 36,000 individuals within family units have crossed illegally into the El Paso Sector since the beginning of the fiscal year in October. During the same time period in fiscal 2018, that number was 2,000.
A further 5,300 unaccompanied minors illegally crossed in the sector in the fiscal year to date—up from 1,300 in the same period last year.
The vast majority of the border-crossers claim a fear of returning to their country once they enter the United States; yet only a fraction (less than 10 percent) are approved for asylum by an immigration judge. But under current U.S. law, all who pass the credible-fear screening will be quickly released into the United States, regardless of the merit of the claim.
McAleenan said that without a congressional fix to the Flores Settlement Agreement, the current trend will continue unabated.
Under Flores, families can’t be held in detention for more than 20 days, which is not enough time for an immigration proceeding to take place. McAleenan said if a family is detained for six to eight weeks, their case could be decided. Whereas, if the family is released into the interior of the United States before their immigration hearing, 71 percent either don’t formally apply for asylum or don’t show up for their court hearing years later, according to the Department of Justice.
McAleenan also criticized the Flores agreement for perpetuating the trafficking of children, as smugglers advertise that bringing a child makes it easy to enter the United States.
In the past 10 months, CBP has encountered almost 2,400 fraudulent claims of families, most of which are adults bringing in children that aren’t their own; others are adults claiming to be under 18.
“Children are being used as pawns to get into our country,” Nielsen said. “We have even uncovered ‘recycling rings,’ where innocent young people are used multiple times to help aliens fraudulently gain entry.”
McAleenan said, aside from fixing U.S. immigration laws, the border must be secured—including with around 700 miles of additional fencing—as well as the continuation of work with Mexico and Central American countries to stem the flow of migrants.
President Donald Trump is facing a challenge to the national emergency he declared Feb. 15 in direct response to the growing border crisis.
A Democratic-backed resolution to strike down the national emergency passed in the House on Feb. 26, and is yet to be taken up by the Senate. Trump said he would “100 percent” veto the resolution should it reach him. Both congressional houses would have to have a two-thirds majority to override a veto.
Both Nielsen and McAleenan defended the president’s national emergency declaration at their respective hearings on March 6.
“When you put all of the facts together, the problem is not just the vastly increasing numbers … but [also] the type of migrant that our system is not set up to protect,” Nielsen said. “Originally, it was single adults from Mexico. Now, it’s mostly Central Americans and the vast majority are vulnerable populations—which are families and children. All of that together is a crisis because the system is not built for that type of flow.”