Border detentions jump to 11-year high in February
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Border detentions jump to 11-year high in February

Driven by Central American families, the number of people detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has increased to the highest level in nearly 11 years.

While the Trump administration has pushed for a myriad of hard-nosed policies against migrants attempting to cross the southern border, the dramatic shift in the number of people taken into custody by border agents has been driven mostly by the rising numbers of families and children traveling without parents from Central America.

For Border Patrol agents in Arizona, this has come as growing numbers of families have crossed into the United States either in the remote terrain of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville about 110 miles west of Tucson, or in remote parts of the border near San Luis, Ariz., just outside of Yuma. 

And, increasingly, families are arriving in groups totaling 100 or more, outstripping the agency's ability to transport, hold and process an especially vulnerable group of people. 

"The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point," said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters Tuesday morning. "It should be very clear from these numbers that we are facing alarming trends in the rising volumes of people illegally crossing our southwest border, or arriving at our ports of entry without documents," he said.

"This increased flow presents currently at our highest levels in over a decade both a border security and a humanitarian crisis," he said. 

Border Patrol agents said that total apprehensions jumped more than 38 percent in February from January, after 66,450 people were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border, and of those nearly two-thirds were families with children or unaccompanied minors, according U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released Tuesday.

During the press conference, McAleenan said that about 80 percent of those apprehended had requested asylum and had passed their initial credible fear claim. However, he said, that only about 10 to 20 percent were ultimately successful in receiving asylum in the immigration courts.

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Around 796,000 immigration cases, including asylum cases, remain backlogged, according to an analysis of court records by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan project at Syracuse University.

Officials at U.S. ports reported a slight decline in the number of people who were classified as "inadmissibles" because they did not legal papers to come into the U.S., and this held down the overall increase to around 31 percent from January to February.

Shortest month is busiest since 2007

Nonetheless, the shortest month of the year was the busiest February at the border since 2007 after CBP agents and officers detained 76,103 people, up from 58,295 in January. And, families increasingly drove the number of apprehensions. In February, CBP officials took into custody 40,385 people, a 42 percent increase from January.

Compared to last February, the number of families detained has tripled, driven by a 1,600 percent increase in the El Paso Sector and a 696 percent increase in San Diego Sector. In Tucson and Yuma sectors, the number of families taken into custody more than doubled this month, compared to the same time period last year.

February's rapid uptick follows a two-year trend after a historic decline in apprehensions in 2017. Already, in the first five months of fiscal year 2019, CBP officials have detained and processed 318,407 people, and officials expect a surge of people in March and April based on seasonal trends. 

"The situation is not safe for migrants," said McAleenan. "It challenges our ability to provide humanitarian care, and it contributes to dangerous conditions on our border and enables smuggling while enriching criminals." 

Since June 2018, Border Patrol agents have reported encountering more than a dozen large groups of immigrants along Arizona's border, comprising nearly 2,000 people, according to reports and press releases from Customs and Border Protection compiled by TucsonSentinel.com. 

Over the weekend, Border Patrol agents said that they encountered "another large group" of around 100 people from Central America near the Organ Pipe Cactus refuge. In an image shared on Twitter, two BP agents stand near the bollard fence designed to stop vehicles, while dozens of people, including small children, are standing with them on a dirt road.

In January, BP agents in the Yuma Sector said they were “inundated” by a group of 376 people, almost all families or unaccompanied minors from Central America, who dug beneath an “outdated” section of fence, about 10 miles east of San Luis. 

McAleenan said that this year, more than 12,000 people crossed into the United States in 70 groups of 100 or more, and immediately turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents. A year earlier, BP agents reported encountering 13 groups of 100 or more.

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Capacity stretched

Even as the influx strains Border Patrol's capacity, the number of people is also stressing the capabilities of other federal officials and humanitarian groups hoping to help them. 

After people are processed by Border Patrol agents, they are handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a mandate to release families to avoid violating a long-standing court agreement, known as the Flores Settlement, that governs how long children can be held in immigration custody. 

ICE usually reviews a "post-release plan" for migrant families, including "ensuring they have a mean to reach a final destination within the United States," said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for ICE in October. 

"This is a time and resource intensive process that can delay the release of a [family] by several days while ICE confirms bus routes, coordinates with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and communicates with family members. There is no requirement that this review be conducted, it is a self-imposed process instituted by ICE," O'Keefe said. 

"We’re seeing this first-hand,” said Teresa Cavendish, the director of operations for Catholic Community Services. For months, the group has been working with immigration officials to shelter migrant families in Tucson, and keep them from being released to the streets. 

"Over the past couple of week, we’ve seen steadily increasing numbers of people release. Now we’re seeing high numbers on top of high numbers,” Cavendish said.

“As of today, ICE is at a tipping point, where they’ve said, right in the monastery we’re full. Shelters around the city, they’re full,” she said. “We’re working with ICE, who are under orders to release a certain number of people each day, and they really want to work with non-governmental organizations, so we’re able to avoid street releases. But, who we didn’t take today is still going to be in the system tomorrow,” she said.

She added that even if ICE decides to just drop people off at the Greyhound bus station, buses “aren’t running” and ICE knows that if they leave people at the station, that just keeps people staying at the shelter from being able to head to sponsors around the U.S.

'Tipping point' at former monastery caring for migrants

Since the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, around 1,400 people have stayed at the former Benedictine monastery that has become a temporary home for migrants in Tucson, Cavendish said. 

“We’re feeding 200 plus people three to four meals a day,” she said. “The volume is just crazy. Things we were used to doing for 100 people, and was a really good system, now we do for 200 people and we feel the strain. Now today, we’re helping closer to 230.”

“This week, we’re at a tipping point and I cannot guarantee which way it soling to fall. We’re working as hard as we can,” Cavendish said. “Anything we can do is better than being on the street.” 

As President Trump often fulminated about the migrant caravan, and ordered both National Guard troops and active-duty military units to the border, administration officials reacted by pushing new polices intended to deter people from crossing into the United States. In November, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the acting attorney general, attempted to bar people from seeking asylum if they entered the United States between the ports of entry. 

Then, in December, Nielsen announced a plan, originally referred to as “Remain in Mexico” before it was later branded as the Migrant Protection Policy, to return asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases are reviewed.

Both policies have been challenged in federal court, and the asylum ban has been blocked by a federal judge pending a hearing later this month.

"We believe the administration’s chaotic policies are actually encouraging illegal immigration,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. “We can see that the start and stop of harsh policies is followed by an increasing number of arrivals.” 

"They hear strong rhetoric and rumors of prior decisions or future polices, and they rush to the United States before the hammer comes down,” she said.

The largest increases in the number of families has followed the administration’s disastrous family separation policies, where immigrant parents were prosecuted for illegal entry or illegal re-entry while their children were handed over to officials with ICE, and then the Office of Refugee Resettlement. After the end of most family separations, “we had four consecutive months of the highest arrivals on records," Pierce said. 

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Pierce agreed that McAleenan and other officials were right that the U.S. immigration system are “super outdated,” but the administration’s focus on “implementing extremely harsh policies, creates a huge incentive for people to arrive here as quick as possible.”

Pierce said that the administration should focus on the asylum system and the nation’s immigration courts, which have become historically backlogged—an issue exacerbated by the partial shutdown of the federal government through January when more than 43,000 court hearings were cancelled, including more than 1,000 in Arizona.

This backlog leaves open questions about the due process of immigration cases, and it can “incentivize” those who have less than a legitimate claim to try anyway.

"They’ve identified a legitimate problem, but rather than deal with the source of the problem, they keep trying to deter people,” Pierce said. 

"Without a consequence for illegally crossing, there is no reason to expect that this trend will decrease, word of mouth and social media tells people that if you bring a child, you’ll be successful," at entering the U.S., said McAleenan. "The status quo is unacceptable, and urgent crisis that need to be addressed." 

In a tweet, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst with the American Immigration Council agreed, writing, "We must keep in mind that CBP could have implemented protocols to deal with surges of families arriving at the border any time in the past five years. Instead of fixing structural issues CBP has doubled down on deterrence—which doesn’t work.”

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A father and son wait outside of the Nogales port of entry, seeking asylum in the United States last summer.

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