WASHINGTON - The number of migrant family members arrested for illegally entering the United States shot up 38 percent in August, according to statistics released Wednesday, a surge Homeland Security officials characterized as a "crisis."
Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly 13,000 members of "family units" last month, the latest data show, the highest August total ever recorded. The increase followed President Trump's decision to back off the provision of his "zero tolerance" crackdown that separated children from parents in an attempt to deter illegal migration.
Migration numbers typically rebound in August after a summer lull. Overall, the number of foreigners apprehended or deemed "inadmissible" at border crossings rose to 46,560 in August, up from 39,953 in July.
Homeland Security officials said the arrival of so many families was due to court-imposed restrictions limiting the duration children may be detained in immigration jails. The result, officials say, is that parents bring children as a way to win quick release from government custody and avoid deportation.
"The numbers have continued to increase because this is a well-known avenue to arrive in the U.S. and be allowed to stay," said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, calling the trend "a crisis of significant proportions, from a humanitarian perspective and a security perspective."
Agents working in South Texas described August as a busy month of rafts coming across the Rio Grande and groups so large they had to be loaded onto Border Patrol buses.
Arrests of migrant family members increased by a similar percentage during the same period last year, rising 36 percent from July to August 2017. But the 12,774 family members taken into custody in August - the sixth-highest monthly total on record - was a threefold increase over 2017.
In addition to the number of families detained between official ports of entry, another 3,381 family members attempted to enter from Mexico at U.S. border crossings, typically seeking asylum, according to Customs and Border Protection, which categorizes such migrants as "inadmissibles."
Nearly all family members appearing at the border are from the "Northern Triangle" of Central America - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - where homicide rates and grinding poverty have fueled emigration for decades.
What's changed, officials say, is the growing recognition in Central America of what they call "loopholes" in U.S. enforcement.
"Smugglers and traffickers understand our broken immigration laws better than most and know that if a family unit illegally enters the U.S. they are likely to be released into the interior," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said in a written statement.
"We know that the vast majority of family units who have been released, despite having no right to remain in any legal status, fail to ever depart or be removed," Houlton said. According to the latest DHS statistics, he added, more than 98 percent of family members from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who arrived between October 2016 and the end of June are still present in the United States.
Homeland Security DHS officials say court restrictions hamstring their enforcement efforts, resulting in a system - they call it "catch and release" - that lures more and more families northward along a dangerous path dominated by smuggling mafias.
"We have an increasingly vulnerable population in the hands of increasingly violent criminal organizations," McAleenan said. According to Customs and Border Protection estimates, the journey to the United States from Central America costs $5,000 to $8,000, he said, generating $2 billion in profits for smugglers.
DHS is mounting new legal challenges to child detention rules in a bid to hold families for however long it takes to adjudicate their appeals for asylum or others forms of humanitarian protection offered by the U.S. immigration system.
But there is also concern the publicity generated by Trump's family-separation crackdown - and its abrupt reversal - has had the unintended effect of encouraging more migration. Border agents who backed Trump's crackdown say smugglers are telling migrants that their window of opportunity may close if the rules are tightened again.
McAleenan concurred, saying Trump's executive order may have contributed to the flow by reinforcing "the realization that a gap still exists for family units."
Trump has used the monthly arrest figures as a way to measure his administration's track record on immigration enforcement, and his attention to the numbers has transformed their publication into a closely-watched event at DHS.
Illegal migration dropped to a half-century low in 2017, but with arrest totals returning to levels more consistent with President Obama's second term in office, Trump has been unable to campaign on a record of tough border security.
In May, as the arrest numbers topped 50,000 for the third consecutive month, Trump lashed out at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, telling her to "close" the border.
The "zero tolerance" prosecution initiative launched that month by DHS and the Justice Department no longer applies to parents who arrive with children, but officials continue to impose criminal charges and potential jail time on single adults. Their declining share among the arrest totals is proof, DHS officials say, that more aggressive enforcement has a deterrent effect.
Trump has cited such surges in justifying his push for a border wall, and in recent weeks has repeated threats to shut down the federal government this fall if lawmakers do not fund the project.
The number of migrants under age 18 in U.S. custody also rose last month, and the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday it has 12,800 minors in its system of shelters, a record number. HHS said it will triple the amount of available beds it has at a tent camp in the desert outside El Paso to cope with the increase.