Border crossings dropped in February. Is Trump’s tough talk having an effect?

DHS chief John Kelly connected Trump's immigration directives to a drop in the number of people apprehended or turned away at the US-Mexico border.

Jorge Duenes/Reuters
A man who was deported from the US seven months ago touches the fingertips of his nephew across a fence separating Mexico and the US, as photographed from Tijuana, Mexico, March 4, 2017.

Illegal border crossings declined 40 percent from January to February, said Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Wednesday, crediting executive actions by President Trump for the reduction.

The number of apprehensions and the prevention of inadmissible persons at the southern US border fell from 31,578 in January to 18,762 in February, said Mr. Kelly, citing US Customs and Border Protection data. The agency, he added, normally sees a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in apprehensions of people crossing without authorization during that period of the year. 

The news turns a spotlight on how harsh messaging from Mr. Trump might discourage prospective migrants and asylum-seekers from attempting entry at the southern border – and perhaps, how rhetoric and directives that have alarmed many outside of his core supporters also dovetail with a longstanding border-enforcement strategy of “prevention through deterrence.”  

Beginning with a 1994 memo from the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, border authorities have built up surveillance and patrols not just to keep people out, but also to dissuade them from coming at all. And since 2005, as the Congressional Research Service noted in a 2012 report, a “second key feature” of enforcement has consisted of punishment that ranges from immigration-related criminal charges to deportations that see unauthorized crossers from Mexico sent to remote parts of that country.

Trump’s directives on immigration – to say little of his rhetoric – have embraced that punitive approach. On Jan. 25, he ordered the construction of additional barriers along the southern border, the stripping of federal funding from “sanctuary” cities and states, and the expansion of US immigration agents’ numbers and capabilities.

Kelly connected those directives with the drop in unauthorized entries.

"Since the administration's implementation of executive orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years,” he said in a statement. 

Arrests along the southern border are far below the numbers of preceding decades, a trend US immigration officials attribute mostly to “a massive and unprecedented buildup of law-enforcement manpower and technology,” as Lourdes Medrano reported in 2011 for The Christian Science Monitor. And Trump’s predecessor placed an emphasis on control and surveillance measures, spending almost $18 billion a year by 2012 on what the Obama administration viewed partly as a way of drumming up Republican goodwill for a comprehensive reform.

Faced with a sudden wave of Central Americans to the southern border in 2014, former president Obama was irritated by demands for him to visit the border.

“There is nothing that is taking place down there that I am not intimately aware of and briefed on,” he said in July of that year, according to NBC News. “This isn’t theater, this is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops."

But that same month, his administration was sending a more directed message of deterrence, running $5 million in print, TV and radio ads in Mexico and three Central American countries warning potential migrants that they “will not get papers that allow you to stay,” as Buzzfeed reported then.

“I thought it would be easy for my son to get his papers in the North,” read one billboard ad. “That wasn’t true.”

This report contains material by Reuters.

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