The number of foreigners arrested for illegally entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, and along the coasts have dropped to almost nothing in the past week as the U.S. became the world leader in confirmed cases, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.
Only 79 people were encountered Sunday by Border Patrol agents nationwide after they had attempted to enter the country between ports of entry. If that rate continued over the course of a month, it would make for fewer than 2,500 apprehensions, a drop in the bucket compared to the 30,000 arrests that agents made just on the southern border in February and 132,000 at the peak of the border crisis last May.
Border arrests reflect the number of people attempting to cross.
“It’s like next to nothing. For almost a week, their apprehensions have been under 150,” said a high-ranking border official who was not authorized to speak. “This is what happened on 9/11 — on steroids. Mexico has locked down a lot of their country … and then they [migrants] think if they come to the U.S., they’re going to catch the virus.”
On March 27, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. surpassed that of China and Italy, each of which had the most up until then. Of the more than 1 million known cases worldwide, more than 290,000 are in the U.S., far more than the number reported in the countries where most immigrants encountered at the southern border have fled, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine tracker. Mexico has more than 1,600 confirmed cases, and countries in the northern triangle of Central America have each reported dozens to more than 200 each. Nevertheless, because some people do not yet have symptoms and testing is not widespread, the actual count is likely much higher.
A top Border Patrol official in Texas said the number of illegal immigrants encountered in the past week was down “tremendously” to “single-digit [apprehensions] per shift” from hundreds per day earlier this year.
“It’s just more proof that it’s a trillion-dollar business model,” the first border official said, referring to how transnational criminal organizations facilitate human smuggling. “It’s all a business, and it’s going down just like any other business model right now.”
Migrants from Mexico and other countries are still being tallied by Border Patrol, even though they are immediately returned to home countries at an expedited rate instead of being held in federal custody for longer periods. Because agents are documenting the apprehensions in the field, not at stations, the twice-a-day counts that are sent to headquarters in Washington may be delayed, skewing the actual daily numbers.
The dramatic downturn in attempted illegal entries to the U.S. comes a day after the Trump administration announced plans to send an additional 540 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, which includes Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Gen. Terrance O’Shaughnessy, the U.S. NORTHCOM commander, cited an “increased demand signal” to help federal agents on the southern border even as arrests stand at the lowest levels in several decades.
“The issue is what to do with everyone on the border since there’s no one to arrest,” the official said. “They flushed out the academy, and they need places for them to go. People are on the payroll, and you have to have them start doing work.”
The U.S. shut down the northern and southern borders to nonessential travel, leading to a downturn in travelers attempting to drive or walk through inspection lanes. Customs and Border Protection has diverted between 300 and 400 port officers and Border Patrol agents to the northern border.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opposes U.S. troop deployments to the shared border, which prompted CBP to instead send its federal law enforcement staff.
CBP has not publicly disclosed the number of coronavirus cases among its 60,000 personnel. Internal data shared by a congressional Democratic aide revealed 60 employees have tested positive for the virus, and more than 500 are in quarantine as of the last week of March.
CBP did not offer comment for this story.