On September 12, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released its monthly statistics on migrant apprehension totals along the U.S.-Mexico border, covering August 2018. The new numbers show a 38 percent increase compared to July in the number of families and kids apprehended at the border. While the number of migrants arriving at the border tends to increase from July to August due to seasonal trends, and though the overall number of migrants apprehended was just slightly higher than normal, the total who were family members was the fifth highest monthly figure ever recorded.
These figures show that the Trump Administration’s cruelties of family separation and detention are doing nothing to change the underlying problem. People fleeing violence in Central America are not deterred from seeking safety by these threatening U.S. policies.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blames the increased number of migrants crossing the border on laws and judicial decisions that prevent the Trump administration from adopting other cruel policies that would purportedly “deter” people from coming. The Department’s September 12 press release calls these humanitarian protections for asylum-seekers “legal loopholes.” However, continued low levels of traditional (that is, single adult) migration make clear that there is no “border crisis,” despite the administration’s repeated use of that term.
While the total amount of migrants arriving at the border is comparable to previous years, the profile of those coming has shifted dramatically. Almost half of all migrants who were apprehended in August were kids or family members. Since 2014, families and kids make up a consistently large proportion of migrants arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border. As a percentage of all apprehended migrants, the month of August 2018 ranks fourth out of the 71 months since October 2012.
The vast majority of child and family migrants are coming from one of three countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The majority of Central American kids and families originate from Guatemala, a country facing increased violence and intimidation of land rights and community activists in rural parts of the country. Guatemala also has the highest population of the three Northern Triangle countries, which also helps explain why Guatemalans make up a larger proportion of those apprehended at the border.
The second largest group of families and kids come from Honduras, a country that suffered a highly disputed election last year, followed by intense violence perpetrated by state actors. Many Hondurans are fleeing urban areas with high rates of crime and violence.
Migration from El Salvador has dropped substantially since 2017, but has been slowly rising since February, as has the country’s homicide rate.
Daniel Ortega’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Nicaragua has left over 300 citizens dead and hundreds more are arbitrarily detained. Thousands have sought refuge in neighboring countries like Costa Rica and Mexico. Between May and July, a time when migration usually goes down because of the season, Mexico saw a 125 percent increase in Nicaraguans apprehended.
While available data make it difficult to determine how many Nicaraguan children and family members are fleeing to the United States, the past few months have seen a jump in such migrants from countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle, suggesting an increase in Nicaraguans.
Zero Tolerance? Zero Deterrence.
Despite assertions made by the Department of Homeland Security, the zero tolerance policy launched in April and May, which sought criminal penalties for all “improper” border crossers, has done very little to deter migration or disrupt migrant flows to the United States. In fact, if the rate at which families and children are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border stays at similar levels over the next few months, the administration will have to stop doubling down on cruel measures like “zero tolerance” and recognize the failure of inhumane and ineffective approaches to curb migration. Conditions in Central America are so dire that people see no choice but to flee. For them, the Trump administration’s tough talk and policies are just one more obstacle among many.
The United States must recommit to addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. The Trump administration has been complacent towards, if not outwardly supportive of, recent authoritarian moves to consolidate power by leaders in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Without efforts to strengthen independent institutions and combat widespread impunity for crime and violence in the region, instability will worsen, forcing even more migrants to flee.
Families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the border today are legally allowed to seek protection based on their credible claims. No physical barrier will change that.