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Decrease in border crossings hasn’t slowed Republican criticism

Border agents have reported a drop in encounters, as House Republicans start investigation into DHS secretary over immigration

A local police officer speaks with asylum-seekers waiting for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to allow them enter the country at the San Ysidro crossing port on the U.S.-Mexico border on May 31.
A local police officer speaks with asylum-seekers waiting for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to allow them enter the country at the San Ysidro crossing port on the U.S.-Mexico border on May 31. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

A reported decline in unauthorized border crossings in the month since pandemic-era asylum restrictions expired has done little to shield the Biden administration from Republican attacks over its border policies.

Officials had warned that the end of the so-called Title 42 border policy on May 11 would usher in a spike in U.S.-Mexico border crossings that could overwhelm government facilities — but statistics so far have shown the opposite.

Border agents encountered 70 percent fewer crossings in the three weeks following the end of Title 42, compared to the week before the policy expired, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

And in May, border agents reported 15 percent fewer migrants than in the same month a year earlier, with most of those encounters occurring before the end of the Title 42 policy, according to data released Tuesday by Customs and Border Protection.

There were also 25 percent fewer encounters with migrants between ports of entry, which pose more of an enforcement challenge than encounters at checkpoints, the CBP data shows.

John Sandweg, who previously served as top lawyer at DHS and acting chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Obama administration, described the current landscape at the border as a “success story” for the Biden administration.

“The bottom line is, everyone was expecting chaos in the wake of Title 42. There was not chaos,” Sandweg said.

Still, lawmakers and former officials warn that the lower numbers of border crossings could be short-lived.

Political attacks against the administration and ongoing court challenges to key border policies also cast a pall of uncertainty over the administration’s efforts to revamp the asylum processing system and keep migration levels in check.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. I mean, there’s still tens of thousands of migrants in northern Mexico,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former policy adviser at DHS and Customs and Border Protection.

Border data

The drop in encounters with migrants between ports of entry after the expiration of the Title 42 policy took many by surprise. Border agents logged more than 10,000 migrants daily in the days leading up to the end of the policy, which for more than three years had allowed border agents to rapidly expel asylum-seekers without a hearing.

When the restrictions were lifted, the Biden administration implemented a new policy limiting asylum eligibility for migrants who transited through another country en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The administration paired those restrictions with policies that expanded other pathways for migrants to enter the U.S. legally, including by scheduling an appointment on a government app to make an asylum request at a port of entry along the border.

Between May 12 and 31, Border Patrol agents encountered an average of 3,500 migrants crossing the border in between ports of entry each day, plus roughly 1,200 migrants presenting at designated ports of entry, including those using the smartphone app, according to CBP.

“As a result of comprehensive planning and preparation efforts, there has been a significant reduction in encounters along the Southwest border since the return to full Title 8 immigration enforcement on May 12,” Troy Miller, who is leading CBP, said Tuesday in a news release.

“As we continue to execute our plans — including delivering strengthened consequences for those who cross unlawfully while expanding access to lawful pathways and processes — we will continue to monitor changes in encounter trends and adjust our response as necessary.”

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based organization in El Paso, Texas, described a “mixed reality” at the border.

“The reality is we have a mixed system at the border, and that’s the legacy of harsh deterrence mechanisms the administration has continued to embrace, while also opening up some channels for those who need them,” Corbett said.

He said some shelters are full, but that the numbers of migrants entering the country “are not unmanageable.”

Brown said the lower numbers could be attributed to messaging surrounding the Biden administration’s new restrictions.

“The information we had heard was that migrants were believing, they were being told by smugglers and others, that after Title 42 ended, the border would be open,” Brown said. “What happened was, though, that I think the administration was quite successful, maybe for the first time ever, with a messaging campaign in Spanish language, in Central America and South America and Mexico that said, ‘No, actually it’s going to be tougher.’”

But she also cautioned: “One month is not enough to say we fundamentally changed these at the border.”

California Rep. Lou Correa, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement, said in an interview earlier this month that he was surprised to see the lower numbers of encounters. He also said he is prepared to see the number of unauthorized crossings bounce back up.

“The possibility of higher numbers is there. It’s real. And that’s why we as policymakers can’t sit back and say we won. This is just a blip,” Correa said. “Unless we continue to work with Mexico, incentives, and implement other policies to help other countries stabilize, this thing is not going to go away.”

Sandweg offered a similar warning. When it comes to border trends, “things change on a dime,” he said.

“This is a very dynamic environment and things can change quickly,” Sandweg said. “It can be very hard to predict what’s going to happen at the border.”

‘Smoke and mirrors’

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers haven’t let up in their criticism of the Biden administration’s border policies. Instead they are plowing full steam ahead with an investigation into whether Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas should be impeached for allegedly failing to secure the border.

Congressional Republicans have generally dismissed the lower border numbers. Several took issue with examining the numbers of migrants found between ports of entry, since that number would not include those allowed to enter the country after requesting asylum at a scheduled time.

“The numbers that you’re seeing that dropped, between the ports of entry, it’s like smoke and mirrors, like a magic trick,” Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., who chairs the Border Security and Enforcement Subcommittee, said last week. “You still have the same numbers of people coming into the country. They’re just not classifying them the same way.”

Higgins filed articles of impeachment against Mayorkas earlier this month, making him at least the fourth House Republican to do so this year. House Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., announced last week that committee Republicans had launched the first of a five-phase investigation into Mayorkas’ “dereliction of duty.”

Pending legal challenges from across the political spectrum could also present challenges for the administration. The administration is battling litigation from immigrant advocates over its asylum restrictions, as well as challenges from Republican officials to programs allowing migrants to enter the country legally.

“Obviously, having multiple lawsuits will make the issues more complicated,” said Lee Gelernt, a top attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who is leading litigation against the restrictions. “The Biden administration will obviously have to navigate not only each lawsuit individually, but the interaction of the lawsuits.”

Throughout, the administration is still without Senate-confirmed leaders at the helm of ICE and CBP. Acting ICE director Tae Johnson and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz have both recently announced their retirements.

Correa said potential impeachment proceedings against Mayorkas would “destabilize the situation even further.”

“You’re taking the secretary of Homeland Security and you’re making him focus on defending himself when he should be focused on being proactive and making sure that the next few months are handled correctly,” Correa said. “So what do you want? Do you want good policy or do you want to vet it out to the guy who’s trying to do a job?”

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