This is the first of a set of data visualization commentaries produced by WOLA staff in order to better understand the regional humanitarian challenges the border faces.
In the last three years, the Trump administration has portrayed a significant increase in migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border as a grave and unprecedented national security threat. It responded by implementing aggressive policies, seeking to deter migrants and asylum seekers by subjecting them to inhumane conditions and deliberate suffering. Recently, the COVID-19 outbreak has spawned additional actions that threaten to do serious harm to migrants’ health and safety. This harm has yet to be reflected in the data.
A closer look at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data reveals that the Trump administration’s characterization of the situation at the border is wrong. In fact, the four charts below show the actual scope of migration on the U.S.-Mexico border, in the hope that better understanding the contours of regional migration can help inform a better vision for near-future policymaking.
The arrival of Central American migrants in the last two years has led to the largest number of southern border apprehensions in more than a decade. That’s notable, though not historic in scope—before 2008, apprehensions on our southern border were routinely much higher.
Historically, most migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border were single men, primarily from Mexico. Starting in 2014, that shifted dramatically. The number of family units apprehended at the border increased aggressively, from less than 10 percent of the total in 2012 to two-thirds of the total in 2019. In the last few months, the apprehension of family units has declined, and single adults are now apprehended more regularly.
The U.S.-Mexico border has never seen arrivals of families and unaccompanied children in such numbers as in the last two years. And, unlike before 2014, most arrivals are from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—not Mexico. In fact, the number of border apprehensions of Mexican migrants has declined consistently since 2007. Mexico was in third place among the nations of citizenship of migrants apprehended at the border in 2019.
The Trump administration’s aggressive policies—ending the right to asylum as we know it, separating families and children, forcing migrants to await asylum hearings in Mexico—appeared to be deterring migration late last year and early this year. CBP data showed a consistent decline in migrant apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border starting in June 2019, after the Trump administration convinced Mexico—using the threat of tariff increases—to crack down on asylum-seeking migrants and accept an acceleration of the “Remain in Mexico” program.
However, migration in the region follows a clear pattern: crackdowns can bring several months of decreases in migration, but numbers tend to recover gradually. The violence and other factors pushing people out of Central America’s Northern Triangle persist. Smuggling networks don’t go out of business. Additionally, migration tends to increase with warmer weather.
We saw numbers recover after Mexico’s 2014 implementation of its “Southern Border Plan,” and after they plummeted following President Trump’s 2017 inauguration. People will continue to flee, and smugglers—and the corrupt officials they work with along the migration route—will adjust.
It will be important over the coming months to see how recent actions, including the closing of the U.S.-Mexico border to all “non-essential” travel because of COVID-19, the Asylum Cooperation Agreements and the Asylum Transit Ban, will impact the movement of migrants and asylum seekers to the United States.
Our fear is that with the right to seek asylum all but destroyed right now, this larger number of migrants won’t be trying to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities. While some will decide to request asylum in Mexico, many will be trying to evade capture by crossing through the most remote deserts and wilderness zones. Many will attempt to bring children. As has happened more than 7,800 times since 1998, many will die of dehydration, exposure, and drowning.
The 2019 increase in border apprehensions, asylum requests, and Central American families and children making the dangerous trek to the United States would not necessarily represent a crisis when compared to historic trends. The Trump administration’s aggressive policies have created a humanitarian crisis at the border and across the region.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We should approach this situation as a significant regional policy and administrative challenge demanding a different approach than that of the past few years.
The United States can play a critical role in addressing the significant migration flow patterns and challenges in the region with policies that effectively govern our borders and uphold our basic values.
At home, the United States can ensure that its border and migration and asylum policies are updated and built on a foundational respect for migrants’ safety and rights. Abroad, the United States can collaborate with regional partners to keep migrants and asylum seekers safe by prioritizing engagement to strengthen asylum and migration agencies in the region and strong accountability mechanisms for agencies tasked with migration enforcement; and by supporting efforts to improve conditions for people in Mexico and Central America.
WOLA’s Beyond the Wall strategy is a roadmap for building that policy—read more about our four pillars here.