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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump has won the first major battle in his war on illegal immigration, and he did it without building his wall.
The victory was announced last week by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which released figures showing a 93 percent drop since December of parents and children caught trying to cross the Mexico border illegally.
In December, 16,000 parents and children were apprehended; in March, a month in which immigration typically increases because of temperate weather, the number was just over 1,100.
It was a remarkable decline - steeper than the 72 percent drop in overall apprehensions - but for eight DHS officials interviewed by Reuters it was not surprising.
Trump has spoken about the need to crack down broadly on all illegal immigrants. But, internally, according to the DHS officials familiar with the department's strategy, his administration has focused on one immigrant group more than others: women with children, the fastest growing demographic of illegal immigrants. This planning has not been previously reported.
In the months since Trump's inauguration, DHS has rolled out a range of policies aimed at discouraging women from attempting to cross the border, including tougher initial hurdles for asylum claims and the threat of prosecuting parents if they hire smugglers to get their families across the border.
The department has also floated proposals such as separating women and children at the border.
DHS Secretary John Kelly told a Senate hearing on April 5 that the sharp drop in illegal immigration, especially among women and children, was due to Trump's tough policies.
To date, it has been the threat of new policies rather than their implementation that has suppressed family migration.
Mothers and children aren’t being separated - and DHS has shelved the plan; parents haven’t been prosecuted, and there is no wall along most of the border. Yet the number of migrants trying to cross – especially women and children – has dropped drastically.
Asked to comment on the policy of targeting women with children, DHS spokesman Jonathan Hoffman referenced the March drop, saying, “Those were 15,000 women and children who did not put themselves at risk of death and assault from smugglers to make the trip north.”
The White House declined to comment and referred Reuters to DHS.
For months, Central Americans had heard about Trump’s get-tough policies. And public service announcements on radio and television presented bleak pictures of what awaited those who traveled north. Some of the ads were funded by the United States, others by United Nations agencies and regional governments.
One radio ad in Honduras featured a mother, saying, “It’s been a year and I don’t know if she is alive or dead. I’d do anything to have her here with me. Curse the day I sent her north.”
The possibility that mothers and children might be separated at the border caused particular alarm, Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Maria Andrea Matamoros told Reuters
“That worries any mother that wants to go to the United States with their kid, and being separated drastically changes their plans," she said.
The policies targeting women and children have their roots in a working group consisting of Capitol Hill staffers and others called together by Trump’s transition team in the weeks after the Nov. 8 election.
The group was asked to develop policies to discourage illegal border crossings and more quickly expel illegal immigrants after they crossed the border, according to two of the DHS officials and a congressional aide.
One goal was to help Trump fulfill a major campaign promise: ending so-called “catch and release,” the practice of apprehending illegal immigrants but then freeing them to live in the United States while their asylum or deportation cases were resolved.
The group quickly identified a major obstacle - the large numbers of women and children continuing to cross the border, said the DHS officials and the aide.
Because a federal court ruling bars prolonged immigration detention of juveniles, the Obama administration generally released mothers and children to live in the United States while awaiting resolution of their asylum or deportation cases.
The incoming Trump administration viewed that policy as providing encouragement for women to make the dangerous journey north with their children in tow. But the new administration was bound by the same court ruling.
After Kelly’s confirmation as Homeland Security chief in late January, several members of the original working group stepped into key roles at DHS. Gene Hamilton, who had worked for then Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, became senior counselor to Kelly, and Dimple Shah, who had been staff director of the House National Security Subcommittee, became deputy general counsel.
Kathy Nuebel-Kovarik, formerly a staffer for Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, became policy chief at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Julie Kirchner left her position as executive director of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform to become a top policy adviser at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
None of the group's members agreed to be interviewed by Reuters. Several DHS officials said that in their new roles they continued to focus on the issue of women and child migrants.
Soon, they had the bare bones of a plan: Since the court ruling on children was an obstacle to prolonged detention, why not separate them from their mothers, sending children into foster care or protective federal custody while their mothers remained in detention centers, the two DHS officials and congressional aide said.
The group also advocated two other policies directly affecting mothers and children: raising the bar for asylum and prosecuting parents as human traffickers if they hired human smugglers.
The thinking was that “if they can just implement tough policies for eight weeks - or even threaten to do that - they would see the numbers of families crossing just plummet,” said one DHS official familiar with the planning.
On Jan. 25, five days after taking office, Trump issued an executive order ending "catch and release." (A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said the agency still releases most women and children in compliance with the federal court order.)
A week later, in a town hall with U.S. Customs and Immigration Services officers, Chief Asylum Officer John Lafferty outlined the possibility of separating women and children in a semi-public setting for the first time, according to notes of the meeting seen by Reuters.
For more than a month after that meeting, the proposal did not leak, but after Reuters broke news of it in early March, Kelly confirmed that it was under consideration. Democratic members of Congress blasted the proposal, and within days it had made headlines across Mexico and Central America.
That month, the number of children traveling with guardians apprehended at the border fell to one-third of what it had been in February.
When Kelly and his advisers saw the numbers dropping, they announced they were shelving the idea of separating women and children – at least for now.
Asked whether it may be revived, DHS spokeswoman Jenny Burke said, "Families caught crossing the border illegally, generally will not be separated unless the situation at the time requires it."
Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley in Washington, Gabriel Stargardter and Sofia Menchu in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin