AUSTIN – The number of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing Texas' southern border with Mexico has dipped dramatically over the past month, though reasons for the decrease remain elusive.
The number of youths picked up by Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where most are crossing, fell from 1,985 the week of June 22 to 977 the week of July 6, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last week, the number fell again to 672 – or a 66% drop from June.
Border Patrol agents and immigration scholars cautioned not to read too much into the numbers, as they could just as quickly start to climb again. But the decline is the first positive sign in the crisis, which has seen thousands of migrant youth overwhelm federal facilities and create a political maelstrom in Washington.
"While the rate of unaccompanied children apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley appears to be moving downward compared to earlier this year, we continue to prepare for any change in current conditions," said Jackie Wasiluk, a Border Patrol spokeswoman. "The Border Patrol Agents in [the Rio Grande Valley] Sector and CBP employees around the country continue to respond to this humanitarian situation in a professional and compassionate manner."
More than 57,500 unaccompanied minors have been picked up along the U.S. border with Mexico since Oct. 1, more than double the number last fiscal year. The children come mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and have complained of fleeing violent gangs or economic hardships in their countries.
On Friday, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with the presidents of the three countries at the White House, urging them to help ease the influx and warn off their citizens from attempting the dangerous trip north.
The youths have overwhelmed federal facilities designed to hold them through initial processing, forcing the federal government to open new facilities in several states. The crisis has pitted the Obama administration, which has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the influx, against Republican and some Democratic lawmakers who blame current immigration policy for encouraging more migrants.
Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced plans to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops to help secure the border, although those guardsmen's specific duties are yet unknown.
The Obama administration also launched an information campaign in Central America and Mexico, with print, radio and TV ads warning citizens there not to make the journey north.
But it's unclear whether those warnings have hit home and deterred migrants from headed north, said Josiah Heyman, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied border security. The number of illegal migrants often dip up and down through the course of a year, depending on the season, he said.
Overall, it'll take more than TV ads to stem the current historic influx, Heyman said. "There are driving forces here that are way stronger than TV or radio ads," he said. "We need to be thinking about longer-term policies."
Chris Cabrera, a McAllen-based Border Patrol agent and vice president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, said he has seen a noticeable drop in the groups of migrant youth crossing over. But the decline could be attributed to the derailment earlier this month of the train that crosses Mexico and brings many of the migrants to the border, he said.
"We're trying to prepare for once [the train] gets up and running," Cabrera said.
The crowds of immigrant families that pass through the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen also thinned noticeably just after the Fourth of July weekend, said Brenda Riojas, a spokeswoman with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, which oversees the shelter. The church saw just 55 people on July 15, down from around 200 a day in early June when it opened, she said.
But the numbers began climbing again this week. On Monday, 144 recently-arrived migrants visited the church. The next day, that number climbed to 176.
"This isn't going to stop," Riojas said. "We need to look at long-term solutions."