Homeland Security chief: Tucson migrant encounters drop 45% after Biden asylum order

The Biden administration’s top border official said Wednesday that Border Patrol agent encounters with migrants have dropped 45 percent in the Tucson Sector since the president signed an executive order earlier this month partially suspending asylum requests when daily unauthorized crossings exceed 2,500 people.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spoke to reporters Wednesday in a hanger at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Facing the largest numbers of migrant encounters in 20 years, the White House moved to restrict to asylum requests, creating a threshold that once met will allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to quickly deport people back to Mexico. After the 2,500 limit is met, a person who crosses the border without authorization will be ineligible for asylum, and some may face a five-year bar to reentry and criminal prosecution. 

The announcement comes just before President Joe Biden meets ex-president Donald Trump for a debate in which apprehensions along the border are certain to be a major issue.

Department of Homeland Security officials said over the last three weeks, average daily encounters by Border Patrol agents dropped below 2,400 per day—the lowest level of encounters since January 17, 2021.

From October to March, the Tucson Sector led the nation in
apprehensions. However, in April and May, more people were apprehended in the
San Diego Sector, according to CBP data.

‘We are
already seeing the results’

At the Tucson air base, Mayorkas praised CBP officials, telling reporters officials “did
an exceptional job quickly implementing this new policy and we are
already seeing the results.”

“Here in Tucson, we have seen a more than 45
percent drop in U.S. Border Patrol encounters since the president took
action, and repatriations of encountered individuals in Tucson have
increased by nearly 150 percent,” he said. “As a result, in Tucson we have seen a
more than 80 percent decrease in individuals placed into immigration
proceedings and our backlogged court system.”

He said across the southern border, Border Patrol encounters have dropped by over 40

“We are removing more non-citizens without a legal basis to stay
here, nearly doubling the rate at which we are removing non-citizens
directly from Border Patrol custody, here in Tucson and across the
southern border,” he said.

Mayorkas added that over the last three weeks, DHS has flown more than 100
international repatriation flights to 20 countries, and “removed or returned” more than 24,000 individuals. 

Further, the agency has cut the number of people who are released while waiting for their asylum cases by 65 percent.

“The president’s actions are
working because of their tough response to illegal crossings and because
they build on our sustained efforts to exercise our full authorities to
enforce the law and impose consequences for illegal entry,” Mayorkas said. We are
attacking the smuggling organizations that prey on the vulnerable even
as the smugglers try to undermine our actions.” 

Mayorkas added the Biden administration is working with partner nations to build legal pathways for people to seek refuge in the U.S. “in a safe and orderly way.” 

“We are seeing early impact of the interim final rule on asylum, but
it’s hard to say what will happen long term,” said CBP officials. “The
asylum halt is not permanent.”

Along with asylum limits, the Biden administration also moved to “streamline” asylum processing and proposed a new federal rule that would allow DHS officials to quickly remove people who “pose a national security or public safety risk” specifically those “who have been convicted of a particularly serious crime, participated in the persecution of others, are inadmissible on national security or terrorism-related grounds, or for whom there are reasonable grounds to deem them a danger to the security of the United States.” 

While non-citizens can remain in DHS custody while their cases move through the immigration courts, that process can “take years and is resource intensive,” DHS officials said. The new rule would allow asylum officers to deny a person’s claim if there is evidence they would be barred from asylum because of their links to terrorism or criminal activity “significantly shortening the overall time between encounter and removal from the United States.”

‘Word of mouth spreads really quickly’

Just before the executive order,
the Tucson Sector encountered a 7-day average of around 1,200 people,
and on Wednesday, the 7-day average was under 600, CBP officials told reporters.

One CBP official
said the shift will allow the agency to put more agents in the field,
instead of processing people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border and give
up. The CBP official said the number of unaccompanied minors—children
traveling without parents or guardians has also declined slightly. 

Delatorre, deputy chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, told
reporters the increase in arrests over the last year presented
“significant humanitarian challenges.” 

Over the last several months, thousands of migrants arrived in remote reaches of the Tucson Sector—including hundreds who lined up for agents in the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and hundreds more who endured freezing temperatures just before Christmas to seek refugee in the U.S. along the southern edge of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

Delatorre told reporters the region has high temperatures and remote terrain. “It’s very inhospitable terrain,” he said.  

are seeing some early positive results here in the Tucson sector,” he
said. “We’re seeing a notable decrease in apprehensions and a notable
decrease in the people who are making that decision to put their lives
into the hands of the criminal organizations.”

He added fewer
people were apprehended and then quickly released for immigration
proceedings, which he called a “really good sign for us.”

agency has moved to repatriate people to Mexico, including Mexican
citizens, as well as migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The Biden administration’s policy and interim rule has allowed CBP
officials to “speed up the process,” he said. “They are quickly returned
to Mexico if they do not pass the fear interview,” he said.

“The word of mouth spreads really quickly with the population that are looking use the unlawful route,” Delatorre said.

‘We were left with no alternative but to sue’

The new asylum rule was immediately criticized by immigration and civil rights
advocates, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the practice. The ACLU said the ban—which allows asylum access only for people who can secure an appointment with the CBP One app or “satisfy a very narrow exception”— is “flatly inconsistent with the asylum statute that Congress enacted, which permits migrants to apply for asylum ‘whether or not’ they enter at a port of entry.” 

“In addition to barring asylum for most migrants, the new rules also create potentially insurmountable obstacles for seeking other types of protection,” the ACLU said. 

“We were left with no alternative but to sue. The administration lacks unilateral authority to override Congress and bar asylum based on how one enters the country, a point the courts made crystal clear when the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried a near-identical ban,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Nogales, Sonora, advocates with the Kino Border Initiative said they
were “heartbroken” to hear about the sweeping order, and criticized how
the Biden administration has pushed people back towards” CBP One “despite
well-documented and catastrophic issues with the app.”

said Wednesday the agency will restrict CBP One appointments to 1,450 per day across the southwestern border, arguing the limit was based on capacity
at U.S. ports, which are “antiquated” and need of funding to modernize.

He said the agency will continue to remove people “who have not established the basis to remain in the United States,” and people who do not tell DHS officials they fear returning home and may face torture or prosecution will be removed under an expedited process.

“We are executing that removal process and we will continue to do so,” he said, and he defended the process, telling reporters officers and agents are “well-trained in identifying individuals who manifest fear.” 

“They’re complying with their obligations,” he said.

‘There is no substitute’

Mayorkas again pressed on Congress for additional legislation, calling for more funds to hire agents, install and maintain technology, and accelerate immigration cases.

“I want to
reiterate: this is no substitute – the executive actions are no
substitute – for congressional action. Only Congress can deliver a full
and lasting solution,” he said. “Only Congress, through legislation, can fix what
everyone agrees is a broken immigration system that was last updated
almost 30 years ago.”

For months, U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema—a  former Arizona Democrat turned
independent—worked with Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma
and Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, to negotiate a new
immigration bill with the White House. However, moments after U.S.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released the 400-page bill, the
effort collapsed after Trump said he was against the
bill, and Senate and House Republicans fell into lockstep.

“The needed
fixes to our broken immigration system, and the resources that our
frontline agents and officers have repeatedly asked for and deserve,
were exactly what the Senate’s bipartisan border security bill would
have delivered. It was bipartisan legislation that was negotiated for
months and would have delivered the toughest border measures in decades.
But politics got in the way,” Mayorkas said.

“The president took action. The border security steps we’ve taken over the past eighteen months are bringing order.”