Illegal Southwest border crossings were down 40% last month, according to just released Customs and Border Protection numbers -- a sign that President Donald Trump's hardline rhetoric and policies on immigration may be having a deterrent effect.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly himself announced the month-to-month numbers, statistics that CBP usually quietly posts on its website without fanfare.
According to CBP data, the 40% drop in illegal Southwest border crossings from January to February is far outside normal seasonal trends. Typically, the January to February change is an increase of 10% to 20%.
The number of apprehensions and inadmissible individuals presenting at the border was 18,762 people in February, down from 31,578 in January.
It will still take months to figure out if the decrease in apprehensions is an indication of a lasting Trump effect on immigration patterns. Numbers tend to decrease seasonally in the winter and increase into the spring months.
But the sharp downtick after an uptick at the end of the Obama administration could fit the narrative that it takes tough rhetoric on immigration -- backed up by policy -- to get word-of-mouth warnings to undocumented immigrants making the harrowing journey to the border.
"Firmness pays," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group that supports vastly restricting immigration to the US.
While the numbers make the case that Trump's efforts to restrict illegal immigration are already working to deter would-be migrants, a former CBP official cautions that there are likely a more complex range of factors at play.
Former Obama administration Immigrations and Customs Enforcement chief and DHS counsel John Sandweg, now in private practice, says that changes in the flow of legal and illegal immigration depend on a range of factors, including seasonal and long-term trends, economic situations around the world and the availability of money to pay smugglers.
"It may be premature to point to the rhetoric as the cause of the numbers dropping," Sandweg told CNN. However, "it's true that deterrence is a piece of the puzzle, and if there's a perception that people will be returned, there may be a decrease in flow."
Sandweg also noted that the Obama administration had been working to counter the driving factors of illegal immigration, including working with Mexico to cut off smuggling networks and efforts to improve the economic and violence situations in Central America that many migrants are trying to flee.
The most humane policy would be substantially boosting the number of immigration judges, cutting down on the years-long backlog that is clogging the immigration courts and not contributing to an environment where undocumented immigrants perceive they can build lives in the US without being sent home, he said.
"The problem is more complex, and what I would hate to have is people thinking there's a simplistic solution to the problem," Sandweg said.
Trump has been pushing a host of tough immigration policies even without changing the laws, including tightening the standards for applying for asylum in the US, setting the stage for vastly increased deportations and detentions and giving immigration officers more authority to pick up undocumented immigrants even if they are not a threat to communities.
Supporters of the measures say the cumulative effect of Trump's changes, plus his hardline rhetoric throughout the campaign and statements like Kelly saying the administration would consider separating children from their parents in detention as a deterrence measure combine to send a message to would-be immigrants.
"Trump's tough talk tells you all you need to know," Stein said. "It's the language people understand. It's obviously the language people on the other side of this issue dislike, but ... it's a sad fact but people try to game the system. There's a huge amount of demand to try to live in a country like the United States, so in the end, the only way you can make sure everybody plays the rules and ensure fairness is by making sure no one can jump the line, so tough talk, making sure that anyone, smuggler, alien, that they get it."