Washington — For the first time since May 2019, U.S. officials at the southern border apprehended and turned away more migrants in February than the month before, breaking a streak of eight consecutive months of decreasing apprehensions, the main metric used to gauge unauthorized border crossings.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials apprehended or turned away more than 37,000 migrants last month, a slight increase from January's 36,600 enforcement actions, which also include people who are deemed "inadmissible" and barred from entering the U.S. The numbers of families apprehended in February continued the downward trend of recent months, but there was a slight uptick in arrests of single adults and unaccompanied migrant minors.
The apprehensions last month, however, pale in comparison to figures from, when U.S. officials apprehended more than 76,000 migrants at the beginning of an unprecedented surge of Central American families making their way to the U.S southern border to seek asylum.
In a press conference Thursday, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said the Trump administration's network of restrictive asylum policies at the U.S.-Mexico border was still deterring most migrants from making the journey north, particularly those from Central America's Northern Triangle region.
He noted his agency is applying "consequences" to virtually all the migrants it encounters. The government can require them to wait in Mexico for their chance to see a U.S. immigration judge, rapidly repatriate them to their home countries and even ship them to a third country like Guatemala so they can seek refuge there instead.
"We are applying a consequence or a pathway to removal for 95% of those we encounter. That is a true game-changer," Morgan told reporters.
Morgan conceded, however, that the administration is still having a difficult time deterring Mexican nationals and so-called "extra-continental" migrants, or immigrants from outside North America who arrive at the southern border. Many of the policies deterring Central American migrants do not apply to Mexican or extra-continental migrants. Morgan said human smugglers have begun marketing their services to these migrants, given the administrative barriers deterring many Central American asylum-seekers.
"It's not complicated. We take one funding stream out of their pockets, they simply shift it to another funding stream and that's exactly what they've done," Morgan added, referring to smugglers.
Although small, the uptick in apprehensions in February could be a sign of the limits of the administration's deterrence policies, especially if courts force officials to temporarily put some of them on hold.
All of the controversial programs Morgan touted on Thursday —rapid deportation of asylum-seekers and with Northern Triangle countries to re-route migrants — face numerous legal challenges.
The "Remain in Mexico" program was briefly halted on Friday after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order blocking the policy, which it found was likely illegal. But the court agreed to pause its own order hours later after the administration said a surge at the border could occur if it remained in place.
On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said it would continue to pause the order until March 11. But the court reaffirmed its holding that the policy is illegal, and said it would only agree to stay the injunction by a federal judge against the program outside of its jurisdiction. Unless the Supreme Court issues an order, the injunction against the policy will be reinstated on March 12 in states covered by the 9th Circuit, which includes California and Arizona.
"Rulings like these threaten our progress," Morgan said Thursday, adding that the 9th Circuit's initial order could "easily drive yet another surge."