President Trump, who for three years has vowed to build a massive security wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, is running into his own wall on illegal immigration, which has continued to surge in recent months despite family separations and other hard-edge policies aimed at curbing the flow.
Nearly 19 months into his presidency — and three months ahead of pivotal midterm elections — the envisioned $25 billion border wall remains unfunded by lawmakers. Deportations are lagging behind peak rates under President Barack Obama, while illegal border crossings, which plummeted early in Trump’s tenure, have spiked.
And government data released Wednesday showed that the number of migrant families taken into custody along the southern border remained nearly unchanged from June to July — an indication that the Trump administration’s move to separate thousands of parents and children did little to deter others from attempting the journey.
More than 9,200 family members entered the country illegally in July, a number on par with the past several months, according to the data. In all, more families with children have arrived in the first 10 months of fiscal 2018 than during any year under Obama.
Supporters of Trump’s hard-line stance credit him with executive actions that have tightened border controls, including curbs on legal immigration through a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and a reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States.
But the supporters acknowledged that his strategy has not delivered the kind of sweeping enforcement victories that he promised voters with bumper-sticker-worthy slogans in 2016.
“The administration has done a lot to secure the border and tighten up a variety of areas, but these are things that are way more in the weeds,” said R.J. Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “They aren’t exactly sexy things like building the wall.”
At three campaign rallies last week, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, Trump boasted about job growth, his Supreme Court nominees, the GOP tax cuts and North Korea. Immigration was not on his list of accomplishments.
Instead, Trump blasted Congress for blocking his border wall and accused Democrats of wanting to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an effort to shift the debate to a proposal suggested by only a handful of Democrats.
A senior administration official said the president’s aim was to make clear that the best way to speed up progress is to elect Republicans who will be willing to close “loopholes” in immigration laws that prevent federal agencies from more quickly deporting immigrants.
The administration’s efforts are “preventing what otherwise would be a tidal surge of illegal immigration,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record and requested anonymity. “Every single person we talked to at the operational level will tell you that the number one reason for the increase in family units is the legal inability to deliver predictable immigration consequences because of congressional loopholes.”
Trump’s tenure has been marked by efforts to paint many of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants as criminals and public safety threats and to send a strong message to dissuade foreigners from entering the country illegally.
Administration officials said the policies need time to ripen and emphasized they are still developing new tactics, including increased workplace raids. But critics said the past 19 months have exposed the limits of Trump’s strategy of trying to make up for finite federal resources by creating a climate of fear that persuades immigrants to stay away or leave the country voluntarily.
“The fact that people are coming in higher numbers shows his immigration strategy isn’t working,” said Simon Rosenberg, executive director of NDN, a liberal think tank. “We do not see any obvious manifestation of self-deportation happening here.”
After Trump assumed office in January 2017, illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to the lowest levels in 45 years.
The decline was attributed largely to Trump’s promise of a wall and other enforcement measures, including an executive order in his first week to eliminate Obama-era guidelines that focused enforcement resources on violent criminals.
But the rates began to spike again in the fall.
Trump’s early success “was based on promises there were going to be consequences for crossing the border illegally,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, who supports Trump’s push for a wall.
Instead, Judd said, the smuggling cartels “probed us to find out if we actually were going to follow through with the president’s promises. It didn’t happen. So now illegal immigration is right back up to the Obama era.”
The data released Wednesday by the Department of Homeland Security showed U.S. agents took 39,953 migrants into custody along the border in July, down from 42,838 in June. Those figures were much lower than the arrest numbers in March, April and May — a spike that left Trump fuming at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and led to the “zero tolerance” policy that included family separations.
Illegal migration along the Mexico border typically increases in spring before falling again during the summer, when temperatures peak.
Opponents of the wall have argued it would do little to curb what are historically modest levels of illegal immigration. The number of illegal border crossings over the past decade has averaged about one-third of the peak rates of the 1990s, after which Congress devoted significantly more resources to enforcement operations.
Trump had a chance to secure $25 billion for the wall during budget negotiations with Democrats in the spring. But he refused to strike a deal that did not include deep cuts to legal immigration programs, which Democrats opposed.
“We’re going to get the wall passed — don’t worry about that,” Trump assured supporters last week in central Ohio. “The Democrats are obstructionist . . . ‘Let’s not build a wall.’ They are haters.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Trump’s “shock and awe” mentality has butted up against the “trench warfare” realities of the immigration system.
The Senate voted down four immigration bills, including one backed by Trump, in the spring. Federal courts blocked Trump’s bid to end Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provided deportation relief to more than 700,000 immigrants. And “sanctuary” cities in liberal enclaves have sought to enact limits on his enforcement efforts, such as barring the use of local resources to cooperate with federal operations.
Trump’s “accomplishments are more granular,” said Krikorian, whose group favors stricter policies. “A lot of that is important, but it’s not campaign-rally material.”
Trump has continued to prime his base with tough rhetoric. Last week, he threatened to shut down the government in the fall to secure wall funding, even as Republican leaders in Congress warned it would hurt GOP candidates.
Some suggested Trump’s recent actions reflect an increasingly desperate president lashing out over the failures on his signature issue — and predict he could become more willing to take extreme measures to demonstrate progress.
In April, the president ordered National Guard troops to assist at the border. And in June, Trump tweeted that he favored a system that would strip unauthorized immigrants of due process rights — two weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said domestic-abuse and gang-violence victims would no longer qualify for asylum.
“When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came,” Trump wrote.
John Sandweg, who served as acting ICE director in Obama’s second term, said Trump’s frustration has exposed the fallacy of his logic.
“He talked on the campaign trail as if Obama was just making a choice and was somehow reluctant to enforce immigration law,” Sandweg said. “Trump promised to unleash this massive enforcement apparatus, as if someone was pulling on the reins. But that’s just how the system works.”