Arrests of families of illegal immigrants at the Mexican border in December reached a record high for the fourth month in a row. Per data from Customs and Border Protection, arrests of families along the southern border have set new records for the past four consecutive months.
CNN reports that the CBP arrested 27,518 family members in December 2018. This represents an increase of nearly 240% from December 2017, which had 8,120 arrests. CBP statistics show an increase in family arrests on the border since August 2018. Arrest statistics are considered to be a measure of illegal border crossings under the assumption that more arrests will be made if more crossings are attempted.
The CBP website contains a prominent notice saying, “ Due to the lapse in federal funding, this website will not be actively managed,” and “This website was last updated on December 21, 2018, and will not be updated until after funding is enacted.” The statistics presented by CNN apparently reflect numbers that are not yet available on the CBP website due to the government shutdown.
While arrests of Family Unit Aliens (FMUA) have increased in recent months, total arrests have decreased slightly. Total arrests on the southwest border were 50,753 in December, slightly fewer than the 51,856 in November. Border traffic often decreases in December due to holidays and colder weather.
The shift seems to represent a changing pattern of illegal immigration across the Mexican border. Illegal border crossings reached a 46-year low in 2017 and have not increased appreciably since. While the total number of illegal border crossings is low by historical standards, families are making up a larger share of those who do cross the border.
The larger number of families and children at the border is overwhelming the ability of CBP to house and care for them. Yet out of the thousands of arrests at the southern border, only six were suspected terrorists compared with 41 at the Canadian border. The crisis at the border is a humanitarian crisis rather than a national security crisis.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAlleenan agrees that the big problem at the border is dealing with the volume of families and minors. McAlleenan told ABC News in December 2018, “The — the humanitarian crisis we’re facing — that means there are 60,000 people crossing the border each month — each of the last three months. That’s 30,000 families, 5,000 kids per month. That means we’re going to have 22,000 children come through our system, a system built for adults who are violators of the law. Now they’re coming in to border patrol stations as young children. So that — that’s a huge crisis.”
“The breaking point at the border is because of the volume,” McAlleenan added, noting that a 2015 case upheld by the 9th Circuit in 2016 led to the current problem of being unable to complete immigration proceedings for immigrants that arrived with children. The decision created an incentive for illegal immigrants to bring their children across the border.
“So basically, that sent a signal, if you arrive with a child, you’ll be able to stay in the United States,” McAlleenan said. “And that’s why we’ve seen continued growth month after month of people coming with children.”
One of the big questions of the hour is whether the humanitarian crisis provides sufficient grounds for President Trump to use his executive authority to declare a national emergency and bypass Congress to fund construction for the wall. The answer is almost certainly no.
Illegal immigration across the southwest border is currently very low by historical standards. The CBP website, which may have incomplete data, puts total arrests along the Mexican border at 396,579 for 2018. That’s more than the 2017 total of 310,531 but far less than the 1.6 million arrests from 2000 or the 723,825 who were arrested 10 years ago in 2008 (CBP data going back to 2000 can be viewed here).
The illegal immigration problem that we face today is very different from the one that we faced 20 years ago. In 2015, Pew Research reported that the Mexican immigration wave was ending as more Mexicans left the US than entered. Today, the CBP statistics note that arrests of Mexican families along the border are far fewer than those from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. This reduction in immigration from Mexico is partly due to the creation of more economic opportunity in Mexico by NAFTA as well as the deterioration of conditions in Central America.
Although he acknowledges that more capacity to house detainees is needed, CBP’s McAlleenan has an idea on how to solve the problem. Actually, he has several of them.
“So, I think this is a multifaceted problem that requires a multifaceted solution,” he said. “You mentioned the legal framework, based on that Flores settlement and the court decision families are going to be released. So that’s inviting families into this dangerous journey. We need a sober-minded, nonpartisan look at our immigration laws to really confront and grapple with the fact that children and families are coming into this cycle, that’s first and foremost.”
“We also need to invest in Central America,” he added. He advocates working with Central American nations and Mexico to help fix the problems, such as violence, food shortages, and malnutrition, that make people want to leave those countries to come to the US.
He also favors physical barriers for certain parts of the border, particularly those that “have a dense metropolitan area on both sides of the border, where people can disappear quickly into a neighborhood in the U.S. side if we can’t slow them down.”
McAlleenan’s idea of a barrier includes much more than just a wall. “And what we’re talking about is not just a dumb barrier,” he says, “We’re talking about sensors, cameras, lighting, access roads for our agents, a system that helps us secure that area of the border.”
The $5 billion that President Trump has requested would pay for about 215 miles of McAlleenan’s requested improvements to the border. The entire border is almost 2,000 miles long.