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Homeland Security officials seeing decrease in legal attempts to cross US-Mexico border

Eulalia Dalila Pojoy Cuyuch, 33, of Guatemala, far right, and her family say goodbye to a friend as they wait along the border fence to turn themselves into U.S. Customs, asking for asylum on June 14, 2018, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Gina Ferazzi/Los AngelesTimes/TNS)

The number of people who were apprehended trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally did not decrease significantly after the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy began this year — but the number who attempted to cross legally did, according to government figures released Wednesday.

An official with Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection, said the number of illegal crossings fell 8 percent from last month, and 22 percent from its highest point this year in May, when “zero tolerance” started.

In July, Border Patrol apprehended 31,303 people crossing the southwest border illegally; 34,095 in June and 40,333 in May.

The decline was expected, due to an annual dip during hot summer months, said the official, who spoke about the figures before their release on condition of anonymity.

The proportion of families versus individuals caught crossing illegally rose to 29 percent last month, up from 19 percent last year, he said.

The increase was driven in part by a dramatic spike in the number of families crossing in Yuma, which more than doubled from 4,735 in June to 10,736 in July. The number of unaccompanied youth crossing at Yuma also more than doubled month to month from 2,229 to 4,762. Family and unaccompanied youth crossings also increased during the same period around Tucson and El Centro.

Many of the families that attempted to cross in the Yuma area were Guatemalan, the Homeland Security official said, and Border Patrol has been working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to catch, detain and deport them back to Central America.

“It’s extraordinarily hot this time of year and can be dangerous for that crossing,” he said.

Under “zero tolerance,” the administration began prosecuting parents in federal criminal court and separating them from their children. More than 2,550 families were separated before Trump issued an executive order June 20 effectively halting the practice.

Many of the immigrant families separated under “zero tolerance” were also Central American, and advocates have sued to reunite them. A federal judge in California ordered the administration to comply by July 26. Officials said they met the deadline without reunifying about 572 children, including at least 410 whose parents had been deported and deemed “ineligible.” The administration has since resisted a court-imposed 20-day limit on detaining families, including those recently reunited.

“We don’t have family units completing their immigration proceedings. They go to the back of the line in immigration court,” and get released pending resolution of their cases, which given the current court backlog could take years, the Homeland Security official said.

As the proportion of families attempting to cross illegally increased during “zero tolerance,” the number attempting to legally claim asylum at border bridges decreased, a troubling trend, the official said.

Last month, 3,027 family members sought asylum at ports of entry on the southern border, 36 percent fewer than in May.

Immigrant advocates have complained that U.S. immigration officials stopped families on border bridges in recent months and prevented them from entering.

In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the top destination for migrants, families were stopped on bridges from Matamoros, Miguel Alleman and Reynosa, Mexico, in recent months, some forced to camp out with their children for weeks without access to bathrooms and running water.

The Homeland Security official blamed smugglers, advocacy groups and the media for telling immigrant parents that families were being separated at the bridges, leading them to cross illegally instead.

“There are places where we have higher capacity, where asylum seekers might be processed quicker, but we are not turning people away” at the bridges, he said.


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.