As the Trump administration regroups from multiple political and legal setbacks in its efforts to curb illegal immigration, the message south of the border could not be more clear, with families and unaccompanied minors flooding into Texas, Arizona and California.
An alarming new report from the Department of Homeland Security shows the number of families crossing into the U.S. illegally surged last month. The agency said illegal immigrants have been taking advantage of a legal loophole that requires “family units” to be released once they are caught.
New figures showed a 10 percent increase in August of unaccompanied minors, a 38 percent increase among families entering illegally or asking for asylum. Overall, people arrested or stopped at the border totaled nearly 47,000 in August, up 17 percent from July and up 52 percent from August 2017.
"These numbers are a result of our failure do what is necessary to control the border," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies.
The administration tried separating parents and children to deter immigrants from making the dangerous trek through Mexico, however a political outcry forced it to reverse the policy. It also tried holding in families in detention until their court date, but the courts rejected the policy. As a result, Customs and Border Protection sources say, immigrants see an opportunity to exploit gridlock in Washington and get in while the administration tries to figure out its next step.
"My question is how many illegal immigrants have to be let go into the U.S. for there to be a political demand that something be done about it," said Krikorian, who favors stricter border enforcement.
The numbers say something entirely different to Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
"The situation in Central America is so bad, parents are deciding that the risk of losing their child to the U.S. government is better than the risk of losing their child to violence," said Noorani. "This leaves lawmakers two choices. They can continue a failed strategy of trying to enforce our way out of a problem... Or, they can develop bipartisan solutions that address root causes in Central America and ensure migrants fleeing violence and persecution can seek protection and a fair hearing in the U.S.”
In the last nine months, 98.6 percent of families who entered the U.S. illegally or without papers from countries other than Mexico, remain here, and officials say it's likely most will never leave.
"We know that the vast majority of family units who have been released, despite having no right to remain in any legal status, fail to ever depart or be removed," DHS Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said Wednesday in a statement. "Through the third quarter of FY 2018, only 1.4 percent of family units have been repatriated to their home country from noncontiguous countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras."
The highest number of minors and families entering arrived from Guatemala (64,000) following by Honduras (43,000), El Salvador (16,000) and Mexico (11,000).
The biggest change agents see is the size of groups they encounter. Instead of a handful of immigrants or groups under 10, they are now apprehending groups of 20 or more. In Lukeville, Arizona, last week, agents stopped a group of 50 spanning a half-mile wide. Instead of running from agents, the immigrants sought them out to request asylum.
"Right now, the word is out. Bring a child," a Border Patrol agent in Arizona told Fox News. "That's their ticket. If they come as an adult, they can be held. If they come as family, or as minor, they can't. They know it. The smugglers tell them."
The Trump administration said Tuesday it's tried to handle the influx by tripling the amount of bed space for unaccompanied minors at its detention camp in Tornillo, Texas, so it can handle up to 3,800 children.
It also added 44 new immigration judges and has considered a policy change allowing it to hold families in detention together until their immigration cases are heard. That is likely to face a legal challenge, especially since federal Judge Dolly Gee already declined to change her ruling, that families in detention must be released after 20 days.