U.S. credits Mexico, Central America for helping to reduce border arrests

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior Trump administration official on Monday credited Mexico and Central American countries with helping to cut U.S. border arrests by nearly 60% from a record high earlier this year, but then lashed out at a federal judge for ruling against a strict anti-asylum policy.

FILE PHOTO – Soldiers assigned to the National Guard keep watch near a section of the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Anapra neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

With President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policy shaping up as an issue in his 2020 re-election campaign, Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that 64,000 people were detained or turned back at the southwest border in August. That was down 22% from July and 56% from a high mark in May.

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Even so, the total was the highest for any month of August in more than a decade, as Central American migrants have headed north in record numbers, many seeking asylum from impoverished countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world.

A decade ago, migrants were mostly Mexican. But in recent years they have been overtaken by Central Americans, mostly from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

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The Trump administration has been pressuring all of those countries to do more to keep people from reaching the U.S. border, threatening Mexico with tariffs unless it complied.

The United States has persuaded Guatemala to become a so-called safe third country that would accept asylum-seekers, reducing the strain on the United States. Washington is working with Honduras on a similar agreement, but has failed to persuade Mexico to do the same.

Even so, Mexico has agreed to keep Central American asylum-seekers just south of the U.S. border pending their U.S. court appointments and has deployed National Guard officers to halt migrants.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard is to meet with U.S. officials on Tuesday to discuss Mexico’s efforts. He said last week that Mexico does not expect the United States to threaten tariffs at this time.

“Right now Mexico has been doing a great job for us, and, frankly, we’re very appreciative, but we’ve also been very, pretty rapidly changing the regulations, the rules, winning in court,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“We’re having a lot of wins in court right now, the courts are backing us up, and that has a lot to do with our success on the southern border,” Trump said, even though courts have repeatedly struck down his administration’s most radical immigration initiatives.

Earlier on Monday, a U.S. judge dealt Trump another setback, ruling that an injunction against a restrictive rule on asylum-seekers should apply nationwide.

The rule, unveiled on July 15, requires most immigrants who want asylum in the United States to seek asylum first in a third country they had traveled through on their way.

San Francisco-based U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar had previously issued a nationwide injunction blocking the rule. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed it to only border states within its jurisdiction – California and Arizona – and sent the question back to Tigar.

On Monday, Tigar ruled it should apply across the entire border, pending a trial on the underlying legality of the Trump administration rule.

In August another U.S. court blocked a Trump initiative to curtail asylum claims, ruling that the government could not reject migrants who had crossed the border illegally.

Trump has also been repeatedly blocked on attempts to cut off federal funding to cities and states that decline to cooperate fully with U.S. immigration officers, and he was able to enact a partial ban on visitors from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries only after multiple court setbacks.

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Even Morgan recognized the losses, criticizing Tigar for his ruling and what he called “unprecedented judicial activism” from the courts. He lamented that with each new administration policy to “address this crisis, we end up getting enjoined. It’s very, very frustrating, but we’re just going to keep going.”

Opponents of Trump’s immigration policy praised the judge’s ruling, saying that previously asylum-seekers could be arbitrarily barred, based on where they happened to cross the border.

“Sadly, while this ruling removes a major hurdle, far too many obstacles remain, as this administration’s war on asylum-seekers appears to know no bounds,” Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

Reporting Alexandra Alper and Steve Holland in Washington, Mica Rosenberg and Andrew Chung in New York, and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio and Howard Goller

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