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Border apprehensions up nearly 100,000 in fiscal 2018

Border apprehensions up nearly 100,000 in fiscal 2018

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 400,000 people crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in fiscal 2018, up roughly 100,000 from the prior year, driven in large part by Central American families seeking to enter the United States.

But comparative numbers over the past three years show that, after a significant dip after President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Graham backs bill to protect Mueller Denham loses GOP seat in California MORE took office in January 2017, border crossing numbers more or less returned to their normal seasonal patterns from the previous five years.

The Department of Homeland Security said that, in total, 521,090 individuals were either apprehended or deemed ”inadmissible” after arriving at a port of entry on the border during the 2018 fiscal year. In 2017, 415,517 people were caught crossing illegally or turned away, as were 553,378 in 2016.

Since 2000, the total number of apprehensions and inadmissibles has fallen from a yearly high of 1.6 million people.

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The most significant change in border crossings by individuals without visas or other entry permits -- including both people who entered illegally and those who legally sought asylum in the United States -- was a change in composition of migrant groups from single adults and unaccompanied minors to family units traveling together.

Roughly 54,000 family units were found to be inadmissible in fiscal 2018, the department said.

A majority of migrants apprehended in 2018 were from Central America rather than Mexico, a trend that started in 2016, the first year in recorded history when a majority of illegal border crossings were conducted by non-Mexicans.

Senior administration officials blamed the demographic shifts, most readily apparent in the composition of asylum seekers, on what they call "loopholes" in immigration and asylum rules.

"What we would like to convey more than anything else is that the unique nature of the border crisis today is that the aliens are being apprehended but they cannot be removed," said a senior White House official on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Under current immigration laws, Mexicans or Canadians caught crossing U.S. borders illegally can be quickly repatriated, while migrants from other countries -- known as OTMs or "other than Mexicans" -- must go through a longer process before they're returned home.

Officials said they want Republicans in Congress to deliver reforms that will allow a quick return of OTMs to their home countries and longer detention periods.

The administration wants to be able to detain any asylum seekers until their cases are decided -- a process that can sometimes take years -- to avoid what they call "catch and release policies."

A second senior official said that, without the ability to detain asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants legally for that duration, "the incentive to detain them for any period is somewhat dampened."

Officials called for Congress to repeal the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) and what's known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, a law and a court resolution that limit the amount of time minors can be kept in immigration detention and regulate the conditions in which families can be detained.

They also called for deep reforms to asylum laws, which one senior official with significant immigration policy influence called "the world's largest immigration loophole."

The officials alleged that Central American migrants are taking advantage of those laws and resolutions in the wake of Trump's zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in the separation of about 2,500 children from their families and made it riskier for single adults without children to cross the border illegally or apply for asylum in the United States.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGraham backs bill to protect Mueller Democrats in murky legal water with Whitaker lawsuits Whitaker’s past business dealings under scrutiny MORE announced that policy in April, ordering the arrest and prosecution of first-time illegal entrants, a category of aliens whose prosecution had been deferred by previous administrations.

The policy and the resultant family separations were successfully challenged in courts, leaving only single adults open to indefinite detention under the zero-tolerance policy and immigration laws.

While the overall numbers of apprehensions stayed relatively consistent with 2016 and previous years -- Trump's election made 2017 an exceptional year -- apprehensions of individuals traveling as families skyrocketed to 107,212 in 2018.

In 2017, despite the overall dip, 75,622 people were apprehended traveling as family units, slightly down from the 77,674 apprehended in 2016.

That's an indication that other factors were pushing Central American families to migrate together, even before the zero-tolerance policy was announced.

Still, administration officials say the only relevant factor in Central American migration is U.S. immigration law.

"We can talk about magnets, and pull factors and push factor and everything else … if we could return [Central Americans], there is no crisis," said the official.

But groups who support asylum seekers from Central America say conditions in some migrant-expelling countries are such that the bar is high on risks people are willing to take to leave.

Viridiana Vidal, a representative for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that provides logistical aid to migrant caravans like the one currently traveling north through Mexico, told The Hill a major factor in Honduras, for example, is state-sponsored violence.

According to DHS numbers, apprehensions of Hondurans spiked 61 percent, to 77,126, in fiscal 2018 from 47,900 in 2017.

An organizer from a previous caravan that caught Trump's attention in April, Josael Romero, told The Hill the Honduran government "[is] murdering lots of innocent people, or those from the opposition party, they're attacking them and pulling them from their homes.”

And differences in country-by-country migration patterns could also indicate the influence of factors other than American immigration law in the decision to undertake the journey.

El Salvador, a country that's been beset by poverty and gang violence for decades, has historically been an outsize contributor to illegal immigration and asylum claims in the United States.

But apprehensions of Salvadoran nationals fell 37 percent, to 31,639, in 2018 from 50,011 in 2017.

El Salvador and Honduras both had significant elections during fiscal 2018.

While the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández -- a U.S. ally -- was questioned by Latin American and European observers, it was quickly certified by the Trump administration.

El Salvador, in contrast, held a legislative election in March that weakened President Salvador Sanchez Ceren's position ahead of a February 2019 presidential election.

Despite those differences, administration officials insisted that quick deportations of Central Americans would result in fewer attempts to reach the U.S. border.

-Updated 6:20 p.m.