Apprehensions of Minors Crossing U.S. Border Fall in August

Slowdown Could Give President Obama Room for Expansive Immigration-Policy Changes

Aug. 29, 2014 2:04 p.m. ET

U.S. agents patrol a road by the U.S.-Mexican border at the Rio Grande River near McAllen,Texas. Over half the people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol every year are caught in the Rio Grande sector.European Pressphoto Agency

WASHINGTON—The summer surge of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the southwest U.S. border has slowed significantly, government figures show, easing what President Barack Obama had once called an "urgent humanitarian situation."

As a result, the Department of Health and Human Services is no longer looking for places to open temporary shelters, a scramble that had set off controversies in communities across the country. In addition, the agency is no longer housing children at three military bases that had been set up for temporary use.

Over the first 25 days of August, an average of 104 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended each day trying to illegally cross the southwest border. That is less than one-third the rate recorded in May and June, when around 350 children were being caught daily, according to new data from the Department of Homeland Security.

The daily rate is now lower than it has been in any month since early 2013, well before the surge in child migrants began.

Some 2,604 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in the first 25 days of August, far less than the 5,508 for all of July and more than 10,000 in May and June.

The falloff in apprehensions reflects fewer attempted crossings.

The slowdown could give Mr. Obama more freedom to pursue expansive changes to immigration policy, which he is now contemplating. Mr. Obama is expected to announce new policy to scale back deportations of illegal immigrants, and he is considering changes requested by business groups to make more visas available for legal immigration.

The scope and scale of his proposals are unknown, but a continuing crisis at the border may have constrained Mr. Obama from a large-scale ratcheting back of deportations of people already in the country illegally.

Republicans say Mr. Obama has already overstepped his authority by granting safe harbor from deportation to so-called certain Dreamers—people brought to the U.S. as children—and would overstep his authority again if he altered immigration policy without approval from Congress.

Some conservative-state Democrats have also said Mr. Obama should leave the policy-setting to Congress.

Mr. Obama has said he must act because Congress hasn't passed immigration legislation.

An announcement from Mr. Obama has been expected in September, though the president injected some doubt into the matter during his news conference Thursday. Asked whether he was thinking of delaying an announcement, he suggested the child-migration situation could have an impact on his timing.

"Some of these things do affect timelines, and we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done," he said.

Large numbers of minors had been crossing the border this summer, driven in part by gang violence and economic hardship in Central American countries. Officials aren't certain why the number has fallen.

Some point to an intense effort to communicate to Central Americans, who account for the bulk of the migrants, that minors who arrive here illegally won't be given permission to stay. In addition, the Mexican government has increased border security on its southern border, an effort to stop migrants earlier in their journey north.

Obama administration officials have also said that seasonal factors may be at work, with fewer people undertaking the trip in the heat of the summer. Still, in past years, data show that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors didn't drop off in the summer.

Whatever the reason for the decline, administration officials have been careful not to declare victory, wary of appearing complacent in case the numbers were to spike again.

"The situation at the border remains fluid," said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. "It is too early to tell whether these trends will be sustained over time."

Under U.S. law, children from countries other than Mexico or Canada who arrive on their own are held in HHS shelters until they can be placed with sponsors, usually their own families, while they await deportation hearings. The course of those hearings can take years.

There is disagreement about what accounts for the recent surge in children crossing the border, which began last year but crested in May and June.

Immigration advocates point to violence and poverty in Central American countries and a desire of children to be reunited with parents and other family members living in the U.S.

The White House also blames smugglers, who are paid thousands of dollars to deliver a child from Central America to the U.S.-Mexican border and told families that those who arrived here would be allowed to stay.

Republicans blame Obama administration policies, including one that gave safe harbor to many young people living illegally in the U.S. who arrived in the U.S. by 2007. They say that policy fueled perceptions that the U.S. tolerates illegal immigration.

Still others point to the clogged immigration courts.

Backlogged dockets have meant that, in practice, children awaiting deportation can stay for years while their cases are adjudicated.