(CN) – The Trump administration’s incessant rollout of immigration-stifling policies this year seem to have had their desired effect: Arrests and entry denials by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the southwest border fell from 144,000 in May to 52,000 last month. But the agency’s director said Tuesday the “crisis” is not over.
Speaking at a podium on a dirt road in El Paso, Texas, backed by dozens of uniformed CBP agents standing against the brown slats of what he said was part of 76 miles of new border wall, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said, “Everybody should be worried.”
Morgan said CBP arrests and denials of entry for fiscal year 2019 tallied 1,148,000, with more than 970,000 along the southwest border, up 88% from 2018.
Compared to fiscal year 2018, Morgan said the agency’s numbers were up this year for pounds of drugs seized (750,000), illicit currency seized (more than $75 million), guns seized (2,700) and gang members arrested (1,200).
Morgan said the numbers increased despite the fact that 710 CBP agents were pulled off their posts at ports of entry to help deal with an influx of Central American families in Texas and New Mexico this spring.
Painting a picture in line with the doom-and-gloom speeches of President Donald Trump, Morgan said drugs and criminals are working their way from the border to every town and state in the country.
El Paso was an appropriate setting for the news conference, as it has been on the front lines of the Trump administration’s overhaul of immigration policies.
The administration used the city in late 2017 and early 2018 as a test run for the zero-tolerance policy requiring arrest and prosecution of all people illegally entering the country, which it formally unveiled in spring 2018 before a federal judge’s injunction shut it down in June 2018 amid an international outcry over the separation of children from their parents.
Trump’s latest pilot program to hit El Paso is called the Prompt Asylum Claim Review. It expedites the asylum process so applicants receive a decision in 10 days or less, not the years it typically takes, which has caused a backlog of more than 338,000 cases.
CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez declined to provide hard numbers when asked Tuesday how many immigrants have been placed into the new program.
“Several dozen, but we expect that number to expand,” he said. “I don’t want to get too specific because that’s a dynamic number that changes every day. We’re going to look to effectuate it at different parts of border.”
Throughout the hour-long news conference, both Morgan and Perez repeatedly railed against Congress for not passing legislation to close loopholes they said encourage human traffickers to exploit desperate Central American and Mexican families.
“Cartels were telling them, ‘You grab a kid and take them you’re in,’” Morgan said. “And guess what? They were right. Cartels got rich on the backs of these people, they treated them like trash, they used them and it happened every single day in FY 2019.”
He praised the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, a program that requires most asylum seekers to wait for months in Mexico for their asylum hearings.
Many are then bussed into South Texas for hearings in “tent courts” where their cases are reviewed via videoconference by judges across the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ashoka Mukpo, a journalist working with the ACLU, said in a recent report that people in MPP are living in tent camps with as many as 2,000 people and are homeless because shelters in Mexican border cities are too full to take them in.
The Mexican government, despite its claims, is not looking after these asylum seekers, Mukpo said in the report.
He said he met a woman at a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, who told him that Mexican police had kidnapped her, removed her from her children and had her call her mother to send cash, telling her, “If you don’t deposit this money, you aren’t leaving.”
Morgan said Congress needs to make more stringent the process in which immigration agents decide if asylum seekers have a credible fear of facing torture or persecution if they are sent home.
He said 90% of asylum applicants are found to have a credible fear but very few win their asylum claims.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform agrees with Morgan.
“The surge of migrants looking to game the nation’s asylum system has led to overcrowding of detention facilities and depleted limited resources at the border,” its spokesman Matthew Tragesser said.
He called MPP a “game-changer” and said it has sent 51,000 immigrants back to Mexico.
“This program has deterred asylum seekers with frivolous claims and has effectively ended ‘catch and release’ where asylees are released quickly into the interior of the country and never show up for their hearing,” he said.