Since at least June, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have been stationed at the midpoint or dividing line of international bridges across the Rio Grande Valley.
As a result, individuals seeking to enter the U.S. must now show their IDs at the bridge midpoint and undergo a second, regular, inspection at the CBP booth. In addition to long lines and long crossing delays, the practice has also had another more pernicious effect: effectively blocking asylum-seekers from entering the US and exercising their legal right to apply for asylum.
Over the course of two weeks, in Brownsville alone, Neta has met more than forty asylum- seekers that have slept on international bridges, undergoing the blistering Texas heat and severe rain and thunderstorms— all with the hope of eventually being let in. After days of waiting— sometimes three or four days, sometimes more— some asylum seekers have been let in eventually. In other cases, disillusioned, dispirited, and perhaps fearful for their safety, have left.
From Brownsville to El Paso, Texas to Tucson, Arizona, CBP agents have openly claimed that the reason they cannot process asylum-seekers in a timely manner is because they’re “at capacity.”
There’s just one problem with that excuse: It just doesn’t quite seem to hold up.
The numbers don’t add up
In May, CBP published updated statistics on immigration activity at the Southwest border. The data sheds some light on the number of individuals apprehended at the border, as well as the number of individuals who presented themselves at the border but who were subsequently deemed by CBP agents “inadmissible.” It provides monthly, as well as yearly breakdowns for the past five Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Years (FY), which run from October to September.
On its website, CBP defines inadmissibility as including “individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws; and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe.”
Given claims about limited space and capacity, one might expect to see statistics reflecting an unprecedented number of apprehensions or individuals deemed “inadmissible.” At least initially, CBP seems to point toward this when it states that “during the month of May, CBP saw a slight 1.9 percent increase overall when compared to April, but a 160 percent increased compared to May 2017.”
There’s one little issue with this comparison. FY2017 also registered the lowest apprehension and inadmissible figures since 2013. Excluding an initial three-month surge, the total number of apprehensions at the border and number of individuals deemed inadmissible is dramatically low during FY2017.
When compared against data available for past years, it’s clear that the activity happening at the border right now isn’t anywhere near close to unprecedented or even “heavy” when compared to past years.
Summertime usually sees some increase in the number of individuals attempting to enter the US. In May and April of this year, a total of 50,924 and 51,912 individuals were apprehended at the border or deemed inadmissible. By comparison, in May and April of 2014— when the U.S. experienced a strong surge in the number of family units and unaccompanied minors arriving at the border— 59,119 and 68,804 individuals were apprehended or deemed inadmissible at the border.
FY2013 and 2016, as well as the beginning of FY2017, also saw higher figures.Although it excludes data on the number of individuals deemed inadmissible, digging deeper into data for specific Border Patrol sectors only raises further questions. According to CBP’s own data, between FY2017 and FY2018, the Rio Grande Valley actually experienced a 22 percent decrease in the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border and a subsequent 10 percent decrease in the number of family units apprehended at the border.
In other words, what CBP officers are experiencing at the border doesn’t appear to be anything new or even anything as intense as past years. In fact, in the Rio Grande Valley, a comparison between FY2018 data and FY2017— which again, registered the lowest apprehension figure for the past five years— appears to indicate that the number of people caught attempting to cross the border has actually decreased.
Last week, CBP released its data for the month of June. The numbers of individuals apprehended at the border or deemed inadmissible at a port-of-entry dropped even further to 42,565.
Above its updated table graphic, CBP stated that it continues to monitor immigration flows “which is especially hazardous this time of year as the number of rescues by the US Border Patrol continues to increase along with the temperature.”
For some volunteers and residents who have been visiting the bridges to deliver supplies to asylum- seekers stuck on bridges, CBP’s humanitarian language may seem at odds with what is being observed on the ground.
In June, at the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, when asked about asylum-seekers that had been waiting days under the Texas summer sun for the opportunity to legally request asylum, CBP Supervisor Rohrbough struggled to comment on how many more days it would take for the people who were stuck on the bridge to be able to make their claim or what they would do if asylum-seekers became dehydrated while waiting.
If what agents are seeing at the border isn’t anything new and— at least for the Rio Grande Valley— might actually reflect significantly lower border crossing rates, how is it possible that bridges across the RGV have consistently remained “at capacity” for the past month and a half?
What’s creating the bottleneck?
Supervisor Rohrbough told humanitarian volunteers, “it’s not just what we have available from here. After they get processed here then they’re going to another one, and they’re full and another one and they’re full and so on and so. And so consequently, it backs up.”
If the number of people arriving at the border and who are being deemed inadmissible is actually lower than in previous years, is it possible that other factors and consideration might be creating a processing or detention bottleneck?
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Department of Justice’s infamous “zero-tolerance” policy, publically unveiling its intent to prosecute all individuals caught entering the US without inspection. In theory, zero-tolerance would require detaining people at least until their court dates. Could zero-tolerance partially explain some of CBP’s processing delays?
The answer is no. According to TRAC data, in April and May of this year the government prosecuted approximately 7,020 and 7,904 individuals in those two months respectively. Given past figures, TRAC projections estimate that FY2018 will end with an estimated 71,574 prosecutions.
Although the projection number is high, it still falls short of past figures. In fact, although the anticipated prosecution rate is higher than in FY2017, it is still dramatically lower than figures between FY2008 and FY2015 and just barely surpasses the rate for FY2016. When compared to the peak figure of FY2013, which saw 97,384 criminal immigration prosecutions, the figure, FY2018 immigration prosecutions are actually 26.5 percent down.
But what about another possible explanation— a bottleneck created by the Department of Homeland Security?
Across the country, despite the lack of an official written policy, many immigration attorneys have reported observing an informal but enforced practice of indefinite or at least unnecessary detainment of asylum-seeker over the last year. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) actually sued Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) for its failure to release asylum-seekers who had passed their credible fear interview, an interview asylum-seekers must undertake to establish credible fear of returning to their country of origin and to continue with the asylum process.
Although the lawsuit targets only five ICE Field Offices— Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Newark and Pennsylvania— that since 2017 had almost completely stopped releasing asylum-seekers, according to immigration attorneys, the issue is still relevant to the Rio Grande Valley.
Jodi Goodwin, a seasoned local immigration lawyer who has been practicing immigration law in the Valley for over 24 years, told Neta that the “issue of getting bonds became inordinately more difficult about a year and a half ago.” Neta asked Goodwin whether she thought that the practice could be affecting CBP’s capacity. Goodwin said that if it is, ICE is to blame for “refusing to follow their own policies, especially with respect to the release of asylum-seekers.”
Carlos M. Garcia, another local immigration lawyer, also corroborated that bond for asylum seekers has been an issue in the past. “They give either no bond or really, really, high bonds…$10,000 or so.”
I asked Goodwin whether she’s ever heard or seen of CBP officers implementing this practice in the RGV in the past. “Never,” she told Neta. “That’s only happened in the last two, three weeks.”
Garcia told Neta that although he had heard some allegations of CBP officials turning people away at inspection booths, that this is the first time he’s actually ever seen CBP set up mid-point.
Earlier this month, US Federal Judge James E. Boasberg ruled with the organizations, granting an injunction against the practice. Only time will tell if and how the Trump administration will abide by this.
Once an asylum-seeker is let in, what’s next?
It’s difficult to conclusively determine whether or not CBP’s claims of capacity are true or not. In part, this is because CBP refuses to provide information about how many asylum applications it is currently processing at its ports of entry.
Archival data, however, shows that in 2014, 569,237 individuals were apprehended or deemed inadmissible. That same year, an estimated 65,218 submitted asylum applications. Only 8,726 defensive asylum applications— applications submitted once an individual is placed in deportation proceedings following capture or turning oneself in at a port-of-entry— were approved.
With already extremely low approval rates for Central Americans and Mexicans and the Department of Justice’s recent mandate blocking asylum protections for individuals who are victims of domestic violence and gangs, the road ahead remains treacherous for those seeking safety and refuge in the US.
Unfortunately, although advocates have long voiced that no legal pathways or possibilities exist within the current immigration system for most people seeking to immigrate toward the US or to reunite with family in the US, under the Trump administration it now appears increasingly obvious that even “getting in line” now translates into waiting days under the sun and other elements for the possibility of perhaps being allowed to exercise the right to request asylum, followed by months— if not years— of incarceration in immigration detention centers, potential separation from children, and then a likely deportation, anyway.