Federal border and immigration officials said Tuesday that the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally reached near-historic lows during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept 30.
Yet the number of unaccompanied minors and families who were apprehended or turned themselves in continues to plague border agents – even amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
U.S. Border Patrol agents made 310,531 apprehensions while Customs and Border Protection officers recorded 216,370 inadmissible cases, according to year-end statistics. (The federal government defines an “inadmissible” person as a migrant who tries to enter the country legally at a port of entry but is rejected, or a person seeking humanitarian protection under current laws.)
That represents a 24 percent decline since the 2016 fiscal year. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October to September, and the 2017 numbers include the last three full months of the Obama administration.
Of the 310,531 apprehensions nationwide, about 304,000 occurred on the nation's southwestern border.
During a conference call with reporters, Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said that “loopholes” in current law continue to lure unaccompanied minors and family units to the United States. Since at least 2013, the majority of the those immigrants have come from Central America, a trend that continued in 2017. Data show that the Texas-Mexico border continues to be the most popular choice for illegal entry by that group of crossers.
Current law mandates that unaccompanied minors from countries not contiguous with the United States be processed by the federal government and placed in custody or with a temporary guardian, as opposed to being immediately deported. Some lawmakers have said that acts as a magnet for illegal migration because some cases won’t be adjudicated for years due to a backlog in immigration court.
Though the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector dipped to 23,700 in 2017 – a 35 percent drop from 2016 – the sector was the most active compared to other border sectors. That area saw a steady stream of undocumented immigrant families. There were about 49,900 people from such families apprehended as part of family units in that sector, compared to 52,000 in 2016.
Meanwhile the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, saw a 52 percent increase in family unit apprehensions, from 5,664 people to 8,609 people. But the Laredo sector saw about a 50 percent drop, from 1,640 to 865.
The surge of unaccompanied minors prompted former Gov. Rick Perry to beef up the state's Department of Public Safety's ranks on the border. Gov. Greg Abbott followed suit and directed the 2015 Texas Legislature to beef up spending on the state's border-security efforts. That year, lawmakers allocated a record $800 million for border security spending.
Despite a promise from the Trump administration to place border security on the top of his administration's priority list, lawmakers appropriated out another $800 million in 2017. The governor's office did not respond to questions about Tuesday's DHS statistics.
Despite the overall dip in apprehensions, Department of Homeland Security officials said the constant stream of illegal crossers shows why a barrier is still needed on the southwestern border. In October, the Trump administration announced that Customs and Border Protection had completed construction of eight border wall prototypes.
The report also noted that despite the dip in illegal crossing attempts, the number of assaults on agents increased to 847 in 2017 from 585 in 2016. Vitiello attributed that to smugglers getting more desperate to cross their goods, whether its people or drugs, during this period of increased enforcement.
"This is a change that we’re very concerned about," he said. "I can speculate that it’s harder to cross the border and people ate more resistant because of that."
The statistics come as the FBI and Customs and Border Protection continue to investigate the death of Big Bend sector agent Rogelio Martinez, who died Nov. 19 after suffering severe head trauma when responding to activity near Van Horn. The cause of death is still unclear: The FBI said late last month it was investigating the death as the result of an assault, but there have been subsequent reports that Martinez's death was the result of an accident. When asked about the investigation, Vitiello would only say it's still ongoing.
"There’s no update as it related to [the investigation], other than the fact that we’re doing everything we can to cooperate with the FBI," he said.