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The number of migrants arrested at the border dropped again in December

It marks the seventh consecutive month of declines.

US Customs and Border Protection members take part in an operational readiness exercise at the San Ysidro port of entry in the US, as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, on November 22, 2018.
Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The number of migrants arrested or turned away by immigration officials at the southern border declined for the seventh straight month in December, marking a drop of over 70 percent since a peak of 130,000 in May, according to new data from US Customs and Border Protection.

CBP announced Thursday that it had arrested 32,858 migrants at the border and found another 7,762 inadmissible to the US at ports of entry.

Taken together, those numbers represent a 5 percent decline over November, with the biggest dips in the number of arriving unaccompanied migrant children and families.

Fewer migrants typically try to cross the border during the winter, when below-freezing weather at night can make the journey all the more hazardous. But the percent decline in those arriving at the southern border over recent months exceeds what could be attributed to seasonal trends, suggesting that President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are indeed discouraging migrants from coming.

From October 2018 to October 2019, CBP arrested or turned away 851,508 migrants — the highest level since 2007, but still far short of the 1.64 million all-time high in 2000. So far this fiscal year, the numbers have decreased by 33 percent, signaling a return to more moderate levels.

Mexicans have replaced migrants from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — as the largest demographic arriving at the southern border. Some 14,000 Mexicans arrived in December, compared to 6,400 Guatemalans, 1,800 Salvadorans, and 4,200 Hondurans.

A CBP official said that Mexican family units have been arriving in increasing numbers, in part because transnational criminal organizations like drug cartels have started targeting them for exploitation, shifting their focus from Northern Triangle migrants.

In a statement Thursday, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan touted the Trump administration’s policies for deterring migrants from attempting to cross the border.

“This seven-month decline is a direct result of President Trump’s network of policy initiatives and our ability to effectively enforce the law, enhance our border security posture, and properly care for those in custody,” Morgan said.

Instead of detaining families at facilities inside the US, the administration has sent about 56,000 migrants back to Mexico to await decisions on their asylum cases under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols.

CBP has also been limiting the number of migrants processed at ports of entry each day under a practice known as “metering.”

As a result, tens of thousands of migrants have been waiting for months on the Mexican side of the border to be processed at ports of entry. In the meantime, they’re residing in migrant shelters and in tent encampments along the Rio Grande, without basic necessities like clean drinking water and warm clothes — and at risk for extortion, kidnapping, and rape at the hands of cartels and other criminal actors.

UN agencies are working on improving capacity in migrant shelters, sending migrants back to their home countries, and informing migrants of their options, but haven’t delivered aid to the encampments.

The administration has also deported 97 Salvadorans and Hondurans seeking asylum to Guatemala under an agreement brokered last year. The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that it would start sending Mexicans to Guatemala as well, but BuzzFeed reported that the effort has been delayed after Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales told reporters Wednesday that his government had not agreed to accept Mexicans.

The Trump administration has claimed that migrants subject to the agreement will be able to seek asylum protection in Guatemala, but immigrant advocates say there’s reason to doubt that assertion. Guatemala is not only producing large numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the US border, but it also lacks the capability to receive asylum seekers en masse.

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