Mexico fixed what Congress couldn’t
Trump’s outsourcing of border controls drives down illegal crossings
BY STEPHEN DINAN THE WASHINGTON TIMES
President Trump pleaded with Congress to do something as illegal immigration across the southwestern border soared this spring.
Republicans seemed willing, but it was a nonstarter for Democrats. Party leaders even accused Mr. Trump of manufacturing the crisis.
So the president turned to Mexico with a combination of negotiations, controls, threats and even an explicit quid pro quo: Do something to stop 4,000 people from crossing Mexican territory each day en route to the U.S. or face crippling tariffs.
Mexican negotiators ran to Washington to make a deal. Mr. Trump didn’t get everything he wanted, but he got enough.
By July, the numbers were dropping. By September, they were in manageable territory and falling.
With additional help from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — the countries of most of the children and families that made up the surge — the president effectively outsourced the border problem to Mexico and got the Mexicans to do what Congress wouldn’t.
“It is painfully ironic that Mexico has done more than Congress to stem the tide of illegal immigration to our southern border since May,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, told The Washington Times. “Mexico is not perfect by any means, but they’re doing more now than any time in your adult lifetime to partner with us actively to drive the numbers down.”
What changed, analysts say, is the incentive structure.
Migrants who had been assured of gaining a foothold in the U.S., with a quick release into communities and a hope that they would show up years later for their immigration hearings, now faced actual consequences.
More than 60,000 were pushed back across the border through the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols. Nicknamed the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the MPP requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico to wait for their hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts.
Other migrants had their claims denied outright under tougher asylum rules enacted by the Homeland Security and Justice departments. Those who do get through this phase are increasingly held in detention, making them more likely to be deported.
Others never got a chance. They said Mexico’s increased enforcement of its own borders deterred them.
As several officials put it in interviews with The Times, crossing the border without authorization now comes with real consequences, and that means they have been able to end the “catch and release” policy.
“It still happens in certain situations, but it’s not the rule anymore. And once it ends as the rule, you have illegal immigration drop exponentially,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
He said the cartels that control the smuggling trade — and their customers, the migrants — realized the old tricks no longer worked. Once Central American families were no longer caught and released, family, friends and neighbors back home took notice and stayed there.
“The administration outsourced the problem to Mexico. Mexico solved the problem for us,” Mr. Judd said.
In May, agents and officers nabbed 144,116 migrants at the border, the vast majority of them Central American children and families. More than 95,000 of them — a staggering 66% — were caught and immediately released.
In June, after the Mexico negotiations, the number caught and released dropped below 60,000, or 57% of the flow. By September, the overall flow was down to near 52,000 and just 17% were caught and released. As of November, officials said, catch-andrelease is virtually over.
Immigrant rights advocates acknowledge the better border numbers but say it has come at aterrible humanitarian price.
Human Rights First is keeping an online database of reported attacks on migrants returned to Mexico under MPP. As of this week, the tally was 636 cases of “rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults.” The group said 138 of those involved children targeted in kidnapping attempts.
“Cartel members were in the Nuevo Laredo offi ce of Mexican migration openly abducting asylum seekers just returned by [Customs and Border Protection] from their court hearings at the U.S. port of entry,” the group said in a report.
“It shouldn’t surprise us that the administration got a reduction in migration by virtually revoking the right to seek asylum,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Customs and Border Protection officials dispute the critics’ claims of mass abuse. They say the violence is against migrants who refuse to stay at the Mexican shelters and instead try to arrange for cartels to help them jump the border. Those cartels often kidnap and hold the migrants for ransom, border officials say.
CBP says Mexico, as part of the deal-making, promised it would protect migrants returned under the MPP.
Officials at the Mexican Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment about their country’s actions. Neither did the embassies of the three Central American nations.
Congress wasn’t entirely idle during the crisis. The Republican-led Senate approved billions of dollars to help create more dorms for illegal immigrant children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. Under pressure, theDemocrat-led House agreed to the bill.
That money helped cut overcrowding at border facilities from 2,800 unaccompanied alien children as of June 6 to about 100 a day by October. The number of people in border custody dropped from nearly 19,000 on June 6 to fewer than 3,500 at the end of October.
But that was treating only the symptoms, not the disease, administration officials said.
“You’ve got a massive wing of Congress thatbelieves they have an interest in this chaos,”
Change the incentives
Congress and the courts
NEW INCENTIVE STRUCTURE: Under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Central America were told to wait in Mexico for U.S. hearings. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Once Central American families realized there were real consequences of crossing the U.S. border without authorization, relatives, friends and neighbors back home took notice and stayed there. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr. Cuccinelli said. “Like it’s a good thing for them. They have something to run on, it looks bad for the president, that’s their view. And long term, many of them want to look ahead to amnesties for everybody that’s coming here illegally. They believe they’ll benefit from that long-term.”
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan confronted lawmakers during a Senate hearing last month over the inaction.
“Not a single piece of meaningful legislation has been brought forward to address this crisis,” he told senators.
The criticism hit a nerve.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, said he has voted for border fencing, more Border Patrol agents and more technology. He said the administration has bungled some of that spending and can’t even hire enough Border Patrol agents to match the level that Congress has funded.
“To suggest that the Congress hasn’t been a good partner I think is just unfair and I think untrue,” the senator told Mr. Morgan.
Mr. Morgan tried to respond, but Mr. Carper cut him off: “You have had a lot of time to speak already, and so let’s let somebody else talk, OK?”
Mr. Cuccinelli said members of Congress were stunned by Mr. Trump’s moves on the international stage and particularly the decision to delay foreign aid to Central American countries until they stepped up.
“He certainly has employed tactics that none of his predecessors have utilized,” the acting deputy secretary said. “Despite all the concerns and worry, the reality is they brought results. They brought real partnership … to a degree and a comprehensiveness that has never been seen before.”
He said the international partners also deserve credit.
The level of serious crime has dropped in El Salvador, where the new president has cut off cellphone service at prisons. Leaders of the MS-13 gang used to operate with impunity from prison with the help of phones.
“He’s doing things that people in his country and ours said couldn’t be done,” Mr. Cuccinelli said, though he added, “I would not be a good member of this president’s administration if I didn’t point out that El Salvador started out safer than Baltimore at the beginning of that [crime rate] drop.”
The administration also has stepped up with tighter asylum rules and a series of proposals to limit immigrants’ access to public benefits.
The result has been a shift back to more normal illegal immigration in numbers and composition. The number of Central American children and families, who shattered records for illegal immigration this spring, has dropped dramatically. They accounted for 70% of the 144,116 nabbed at the border in May but just 38% of the 45,250 caught at the border by October.
Mr. Isacson wondered how much staying power the recovery would have. He pointed to the surge of Central American families in 2014 and 2015 under the Obama administration.
“Smugglers cut way back on their business, and people stopped coming for a few months. Eventually, though, they adapted and the trend started going upward again,” he said. “Conditions aren’t better in places like Central America’s Northern Triangle, and it’s not like smugglers are going to go out of business. I’d expect to see some recovery, but the numbers probably haven’t bottomed out yet.”
U.S. officials say counting on Mexico isn’t a longterm solution and Congress must act.
The president has a few demands: Tighten asylum rules; synchronize treatment of unaccompanied alien children so juveniles from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras can be returned quickly in the same way that Mexican children are; and reverse a judge’s 2015 order that put an effective 20-day cap on the length of time illegal immigrant families could be held in detention.
That last one is the biggest. Judge Dolly M. Gee’s ruling has been cited as the biggest cause of the migrant family surge.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it takes about 50 days on average to complete an immigration case for someone in detention — far longer than the 20 days Judge Gee has allowed.
Cases for those who are released can take years, and many don’t even show for their immigration hearings. They use their release as a chance to disappear into the shadows.
The administration proposed a plan to Judge Gee that would allow for longer detention periods, but she rejected it.
Judges also are scrutinizing the administration’s other moves, including the tougher asylum policies and the MPP.
Mr. Cuccinelli said courts are now the biggest threat to the administration’s success.
“It’s not Mexicans or congressmen; it’s activist judges who seek to enjoin each and every thing we do,” said Mr. Cuccinelli, a former attorney general of Virginia.