Sharp declines in the numbers of immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. means Border Patrol agents can throw their efforts more fully into their enforcement role, says the agency’s chief patrol agent here.

Raul L. Ortiz, chief patrol agent for the Del Rio Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, said Friday the Border Patrol has seen “a significant decrease in apprehensions” from late spring and summer. In August, the agency apprehended a total of 64,000 persons nationwide. In July, agents apprehended a total of 82,000, and in May, a total of 144,000 were apprehended.

“What has happened? What’s different? Certainly, I think the supplemental funding that Congress approved allowed us to do some things to manage the humanitarian aspect of what we’ve been faced with, and that was a significant boost to the Border Patrol and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) to be able to manage this,” Ortiz said.

Also factoring heavily into the decline are the “influence” the U.S. government has had on the government of Mexico, he said.

“What we’ve seen, across the board, is an increased presence and enforcement, both on Mexico’s southern border and their northern border. What does that look like? Last year, 80,000-plus apprehensions. So far this year, 135,000 apprehensions by the government of Mexico of migrants traveling through that country, and most of those have been repatriated back to their home countries.

“They have a stronger footprint in Tapachula, on their southern border, between Guatemala and themselves, and then when you look on their northern border, we have seen increased patrols across the entire southwest border and more specifically, here in Del Rio. We have them in Eagle Pass. We also have seen some increased patrols here in Acuña,” Ortiz said.

The stepped-up enforcement by Mexico means there are no longer large groups of immigrants staging just south of the U.S. border.

“We’ve seen a reduction in those special-interest aliens that we were experiencing early on: African nationals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haitian nationals. We’re no longer seeing those numbers. Now we see single-digit special-interest aliens and more often, they’re from Venezuela, Ecuador and some of those other countries in South America,” Ortiz said.

The Del Rio Border Patrol Sector continues to see “a heavy presence” of Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans, he added.

Smuggling is also on the rise, Ortiz noted.

“So far, to date, in this particular sector, (we’ve had) about 640 smuggling cases from individuals throughout the sector, from Carrizo Springs, all the way to Abilene, in this fiscal year. The smuggling organizations are getting desperate. They’re pushing migrants out into the ranchlands, out into the more remote areas. We’re no longer seeing them cross in those urban areas,” Ortiz said.

Another factor contributing to the drop in immigrant numbers, the chief said, is the implementation of the “migrant protection program.”

“One of the other things that we have done, as the U.S. government, is our migrant protection program. It has expanded to Del Rio, so on a daily basis, we are transporting a population of individuals that we apprehend in this sector, and we’re taking them to Laredo, Texas. They are returned to Mexico to await their asylum hearing that is scheduled within 30 days.

“What this does, and right now we’re averaging about 177 apprehensions a day, and so when you take about 50 of those and put them on a bus and take them to Laredo and tell them, ‘You are going to have to wait in Mexico for your asylum hearing,’ quite often about 80 percent of those individuals are returning to their home countries instead of opting to wait for an asylum hearing for 30 days,” Ortiz said.

He said he hopes the program will continue to expand across the southwest border.

“Here in south Texas, we’ve seen it impact what happens in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Del Rio sectors, and of course, it’s ongoing in the other sectors,” he said.

Ortiz also addressed a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding asylum seekers.

“When you talk about the Flores agreement and the ability to identify a population out there that is excluded or finds a way to take advantage of the legal framework that exists, this will, at some point, we hope, be able to close that gap and allow us to repatriate or hold these folks for an asylum hearing and then ultimately repatriate them, if they’re not afforded some sort of benefit here in the U.S.,” Ortiz said.

The Del Rio Sector, which at one point earlier this year averaged 350 apprehensions per day, is now at about 177 apprehension per day, the chief said.

“We have made a conscious effort to deploy as many agents as we can to the front lines, and because we’re not having to spend so much time processing, it allows us to put more agents out there in an enforcement role that we weren’t able to do 60, 90 days ago,” Ortiz said.

“Our number one goal continues to be operational control of the southwest border, and here, specifically, operational control of the 210 miles of river that we have responsibility for. The way we’re going to accomplish that is to continue to make sure we have the necessary agents out there, make sure we know what’s coming across that river on any given day, at any given hour and certainly being able to respond and have some sort of resolution,” he added.

The chief said he believes the Border Patrol agents, if anything, are more vigilant now than they have been, even at the height of the surges earlier this year.

“There were certain areas within this sector and certainly across the entire southwest border that saw a small footprint of Border Patrol agents because we were so tied up on this humanitarian crisis. Now what you find is that more agents are being deployed out there on the front lines, and it’s given us better situational awareness as to who’s coming across that river, and we’re able to respond a lot more quickly,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz, as he has in the past, praised the Border Patrol’s local, county and state partners, the police departments and sheriff’s offices as well as the officers of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

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