President Donald Trump’s plan to force Mexico to stem the flow of migrants across the southwest border of the U.S. appears to be working.
Border arrests, a metric for illegal crossings, plummeted to 51,000 in August, according to preliminary government figures obtained by POLITICO Wednesday, down more than 60 percent since a peak in May. And border watchers say it’s largely because of an agreement Trump struck with Mexico in June. Mexican authorities, backed by the newly formed National Guard, are now cracking down on migrants traversing Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, monitoring river crossings and stopping buses carrying migrants from Central America through Mexico. At the same time, the U.S. is making tens of thousands of asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their applications are considered.
The decline in border traffic — if sustained — could amount to a major victory for Trump as he heads into the 2020 election. Perhaps more important, the experimental measures taken by his administration could reshape immigration enforcement for years to come.
“I think that they are getting exactly what they said they would get, by forcing the hand of Mexico,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Chicago-based pro-migrant group Alianza Americas. “But the question is, ‘Is it sustainable?’”
The White House and the Homeland Security Department did not respond to requests for comment. But Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Martha Bárcena told POLITICO that steps taken since June have produced meaningful results.
“People know that if they come into Mexico, they have to respect the Mexican law,” Bárcena said. She added that migrants planning to seek asylum in the U.S. now understand that it’s “not as easy as they were told it was going to be.”
Trump praised Mexico’s actions to reduce the migrant flow in a tweet Saturday that quoted Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, saying Mexico was “stepping up to the plate and doing what they need to do.”
Mexico’s delegation will press the U.S. to process asylum cases faster, as migrants from Central America and elsewhere pile up in Mexican border towns. It will also push for increased aid to Central America and efforts to stop the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico.
The Mexico agreement followed threats from Trump to impose across-the-board escalating tariffs on Mexican goods that would likely have resulted in severe economic costs on both sides of the border. When the agreement was announced, it was widely interpreted as a fig leaf that would allow Trump to back down but wouldn’t likely have much impact on migration.
But the deal’s components appear to have contributed to the steep drop in border arrests, according to interviews with six former officials and advocates both for and against greater levels of immigration, as well as a POLITICO analysis of enforcement data.
Border arrests soared through the spring as Central American families trekked north in record numbers. The surge in arrivals overwhelmed U.S. border facilities and ignited a political battle over whether Democrats or Republicans shouldered the blame for the sudden influx, which peaked with 133,000 border arrests in May.
Then arrests fell to 95,000 in June and 72,000 in July. The June and July drops fit a seasonal pattern in earlier years, but the August decline did not. Border arrests have typically increased in August during the past decade.
While Trump’s base is likely to be pleased, advocates for immigrants say the drop in arrests could be bad for asylum seekers.