Have January raids deterred migrants from illegally crossing the border?

Amid controversy over immigration raids targeting families in the U.S. illegally, the number of children and family members caught crossing the southern border plummeted last month, according to newly released government figures.

In January, 3,113 unaccompanied child migrants were apprehended, down 54% from December.

The number of people who were apprehended traveling in families fell 65% to 3,145.

Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, cited those figures in a statement Tuesday defending the raids and vowing to continue them.

The implication was that the raids were deterring people from attempting to make the journey north.

“While the one-month decline in January is encouraging, this does not mean we can dial back our border security efforts,” he said.

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The raids, which were launched Jan. 2, resulted in 121 people being taken into custody, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

Advocates for immigrants, however, challenged the notion that the decline in border apprehensions can be attributed to the raids.

“The time it takes a refugee to travel from Central America to the United States precludes making any connection between the raids and the number of people who have arrived since the raids,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the San Antonio-based Raices immigrant legal advocacy group.

Illegal crossings on the southern border traditionally decrease during the winter, and apprehensions also dropped between December 2014 and January 2015, though not as dramatically as this time.

Overall, recent illegal crossings by children and families are soaring compared with a year ago.

Over the last four months, 24,616 people crossing with families were taken into custody, nearly triple the number during the same period a year earlier. The number of unaccompanied children apprehended over those same months more than doubled to 20,455.

The raids came in response to that increase and memories of 2014, when a surge of more than 68,000 children overwhelmed border shelters and holding areas.

This year, the government has already had to open emergency shelters for migrants at a New Mexico military base and Texas summer camps.

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Many of the migrants are fleeing escalating violence in Central America and have applied for asylum.

Advocates and lawmakers have said the migrants should be treated like refugees instead of swept up in raids.

Last month, 150 Democrats in Congress sent a letter to President Obama demanding that he halt the raids, insisting they have, “generated widespread fear and panic in immigrant communities” and that the practice “raises numerous due process concerns including meaningful access to legal counsel for mothers and children after apprehension.”

On Tuesday, immigrant advocates delivered a petition to the White House with more than 135,000 signatures calling on the president to end all deportation raids against refugee families from Central America and provide them temporary legal status. They also delivered a letter from 75 immigrant advocacy groups.

“The Obama administration has sunk to a new low with these raids,” said Matt Nelson, managing director of the Latino advocacy group Presente.org.

But Johnson defended the raids in his statement, released after the petition and letter were delivered Tuesday.

While the administration does not consider children and families priorities for deportation, he said, “Our borders are not open to illegal migration.”

“If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered deported by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home,” he said.

At the same time, he said that many migrants may be eligible for refugee status and that the Refugee Admissions Program is being expanded “to help vulnerable men, women and children in Central America.”

But advocates said that’s not enough.

Ryan said that of the dozen immigrants swept up in the raids whom his group has represented, all have been granted stays of removal.

“The raids only exposed one fact: That these people are extremely vulnerable in this legal process and there is no legal defense network capable of providing them with representation,” he said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Follow me for the latest in national news @mollyhf

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