WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
16 Jul 2018 | Press Release

New Report: ‘Zero Tolerance’ is Not Deterring Undocumented Migration

Findings and Recommendations from On-the-Ground Investigations

The Trump administration’s attempt to impose a “zero tolerance” policy on migrants entering the United States in between the ports of entry, including those seeking asylum here, is damaging not only to the lives of almost 3,000 children and their parents who were separated. It is damaging our institutions, especially our court system and the law enforcement agencies charged with guarding our borders and enforcing our immigration laws. It is damaging the United States’ standing in the world. And it has inspired a wave of outrage that hasn’t yet ebbed, and may rise again if the Trump administration’s next steps, such as mass detention of asylum-seeking families, are similarly inhumane.

In the first of a series of reports, “The Zero Tolerance Policy: An Impossible and Inhumane Approach Toward Asylum-Seekers at the Border,” WOLA experts Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer who have conducted extensive documentary research over the last seven years at the U.S.-Mexico border, take stock of what has happened. Meyer, Isacson, and Adeline Hite conducted a four-day visit to southern Arizona on June 19-22, at the height of the Trump administration-created family separation crisis.

Here are some of the main findings of this first report which draws from the grim “zero tolerance” experience so far, and some urgent policy recommendations:

  • Even after two months, zero tolerance is not deterring asylum-seekers from improperly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry. The number of border-crossers, including children and families, declined from May to June, but the drop was no steeper than the usual seasonal variation: the hot summer months tend to see fewer migrants. Many migrants continue to cross in between ports of entry because they must go where their smuggler directs them or out of lack of information about the process. (WOLA will discuss the situation at ports of entry in a subsequent report in this series.)
  • Tighter security measures (including fencing) along Arizona’s border with Mexico have empowered organized crime groups, allowing them to more tightly control the remote areas. This is one of the reasons why some migrants literally cannot choose whether or not to cross at a port of entry to ask for asylum: smugglers can only work in the territory designated to them by powerful criminal groups.
  • The “push” factors driving people to migrate remain largely unchanged; this was evident along one established smuggling route from Guatemala to Arizona. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala continue to have some of the highest homicide rates for countries not at war and asylum seekers continue to flee extortion, gang violence or forced recruitment, domestic abuse, gender violence, or targeting for collaboration with police. So far this year in Arizona, nearly 90 percent of Central American asylum-seekers are Guatemalan. A surprising number are fleeing the country’s rural highlands, where the violence is being generated by drug trafficking groups who extort local businesses and are pushing people off of their lands, and operate with the acquiescence of corrupt government and security officials.
  • By straining law enforcement agencies and courts to their maximum capacity, “zero tolerance” is undermining the ability of the federal criminal justice system along the border to deal with more serious crimes. Dockets are overflowing, prosecutions are at maximum capacity, and consequently migrants’ due process rights have eroded. The strain has also resulted in Border Patrol agents getting pulled off field duty so that they can process and attend to families and children, a role for which they lack training. In some jurisdictions, federal prosecutors are sending more felony drug cases to state courts because of backlogs caused by zero tolerance.
  • No jurisdiction came close to actual “zero” tolerance: the Trump administration’s edict overwhelmed physical capacity long before the federal justice system could come even close to prosecuting and incarcerating 100 percent of border-crossers. It appears that at least half, probably more, were not prosecuted because of the overwhelmed system. And of those prosecuted, more than 80 percent were sentenced only to time served or probation.

Read the report