Illegal immigration is down nearly 60% at the southern border amid the coronavirus crisis, Homeland Security said Monday.
Officials reported arresting or encountering about 4,200 migrants who tried to enter illegally last week. That’s down from about 10,000 a week before COVID-19 upended things.
The Trump administration has implemented an unprecedented shutdown of the border. Commercial traffic is still getting through, but illegal immigrants are being immediately returned, under an emergency policy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That has cut the flow dramatically.
What hasn’t slowed is the pace of border-wall construction.
New data from Customs and Border Protection shows another nine miles was completed between March 20 and April 3, even as much of the country was shutting down amid COVID-19 fears.
Six of those new miles replaced old vehicle barriers erected during the Bush years, while one mile replaced outdated pedestrian fencing. The final two miles are new secondary fending, built in locations where no secondary fence existed.
Border officials say the construction is exempt from shelter-in-place orders from states such as California.
And they defend the construction as crucial to helping shape the flow of illegal immigration.
But critics say it’s dangerous to be building right now, pointing out that the contractors are being brought in from elsewhere, and live and work in close quarters then return home.
“Wall construction is a robust potential disease vector, and the administration refuses to cut it off,” wrote Adam Isacson, at the Washington Office on Latin America, in a memo on the Trump administration’s border steps.
He also criticized the quick returns, or “turnbacks,” of illegal immigrants at the border, saying they’re happening too fast to give legitimate refugees the chance to apply for asylum.
He said more than 7,000 people have been pushed back across the border since March 20.
“Turning back threatened people, a basic human rights violation known as “refoulement,” is a direct violation of the Refugee Act of 1980 and of international law,” Mr. Isacson wrote.
U.S. officials defend the construction and the turnbacks as crucial to helping shape the flow of illegal immigration. They say CBP holding facilities are no place to put people who might be at risk of coronavirus, so preventing their entry or sending them back quickly is crucial to their own safety, as well as that of federal officers and agents.
The drop in crossings is matched by a severe drop in prosecutions of smugglers.
A Washington Times analysis of cases in border jurisdictions shows a 73% drop in prosecutions from March 20 to 31, compared to the same time period a year earlier. By contrast, the beginning of the month actually saw more prosecutions than the same period in 2019.
Among the cases that have been brought are a number of attempts to smuggle medium-sized groups through highway checkpoints in trucks.
At one Texas checkpoint on March 24 agents stopped a truck with 48 illegal immigrants, according to agents: 17 from Peru, 10 from Guatemala, nine from Mexico, six from El Salvador, four from Honduras and two from Cuba. Migrants paid $12,000 apiece to be smuggled in.
Three days later, at the same checkpoint near Sarita, Texas, agents stopped a truck with 36 illegal immigrants kept in the 103-degree interior. They paid between $10,000 and $15,000, according to court documents.
The Washington Times this week also reported on an attempt to use the chaos of wall construction to sneak illegal immigrants in.
Two Ford F-250 pickup trucks cloned to look like authentic work vehicles, with “SWC Southwest Valley Constructors” logos, were spotted on April 1.
Agents apprehended the driver and more than a dozen illegal immigrants from one truck, while the driver of the other truck fled on foot, with an agent firing at him. The driver escaped back into Mexico, according to court documents.
A CBP spokesman said no one was reported injured in the shooting.