The numbers of unaccompanied Central American children and families detained at the U.S. border peaked in June of 2014, then fell. But predictably, the numbers are rising again. In September 2016, Border Patrol apprehended 4,488 unaccompanied Central American children and 8,832 members of Central American family units (meaning the number of children, parents, or legal guardians apprehended together). This was the third-largest monthly total since the 2014 crisis subsided. In fiscal year 2014 (October 2013-September 2014), Border Patrol apprehended what was at the time a record 113,039 children and family unit members from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (about one in every 270 citizens of those countries). The total for fiscal 2016 reached 117,300—which exceeds fiscal 2015 by 54,550 people and the former 2014 record by 4,261. Two out of every seven migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016 were children or families from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
This does not mean that a new crisis is upon us. Instead, what we are experiencing now is, to use a tired phrase, “the new normal.”
The number of children and family members (including from Mexico) encountered at the border in September 2016—the heaviest month of fiscal year 2016—was high, but it was about half the number apprehended in June 2014, the height of the 2014 “surge.” September’s arrivals did not overwhelm U.S. authorities’ capacities: there was no footage of children crowding the loading dock at the McAllen, Texas Border Patrol station, because all were processed and handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services in an orderly manner.
Nor is the current increase a sudden or dramatic “wave.” What we have seen for nearly a year and a half is a steady rise: many months of gradual increases in arrivals.
Overall, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S. southwest border has dropped significantly, to levels not seen since the early 1970s. But while the migrant population is smaller, it has rapidly become less Mexican, with fewer men and adults. Migrants apprehended at the border now increasingly include unaccompanied children and families, and are more motivated by fear of violence than by hope of economic opportunity.
After July 2014, new arrivals of Central Americans plummeted. Much of the drop can be attributed to a U.S.-backed crackdown by Mexican immigration and police authorities in the country’s south, near the border with Guatemala. Mexico’s “Southern Border Program” curtailed travel atop cargo trains, and appeared to disrupt migrant smugglers’ operations for months. Mexico’s apprehensions of migrants from Central America more than doubled between 2013 and 2015, to heights not seen since the mid-2000s. (During the mid-2000s, Mexico apprehended more Central Americans than it does now. This drew little notice in the United States at the time, however, because very few of the detained Central Americans were minors or families, and because in those years of higher migration from Mexico, the Central American migrant population made up a much smaller proportion of those detained in the United States.)
Mexico’s crackdown after the summer of 2014 drew criticism from WOLA and other human rights advocates because of documented abuses, and because of a failure to address the protection concerns of children and families who could qualify for asylum or refugee status. Moreover, the decline in Central American migrants reaching the United States that followed seems to have been temporary.
U.S. apprehensions of children and family members from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras began to increase again in early 2015. Steady monthly growth continued virtually unbroken throughout the year, defying a predicted decrease in migration in autumn and winter months. December 2015 ended up being the third-highest month on record. Then, for reasons we haven’t been able to determine, child and family migration dipped sharply in January and February 2016, only to resume steady increases from March through September—reaching levels exceeding late 2015 “mini-surge.”
When added together, the total number of Central Americans apprehended by authorities in both Mexico and the United States in fiscal year 2016 exceeded fiscal year 2014 levels—though by a small margin—as well as fiscal year 2015. This demonstrates people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras continue to leave their home countries, and at higher levels than the height of the 2014 “crisis.”
Some press coverage has insinuated that the rise in Central American migration to the United States is a result of a slackening of Mexico’s crackdown on Central American migrants in its territory. The numbers at Mexico’s southern border do not support this. Mexico’s apprehensions of Central American migrants dropped by 12 percent between October 2014-September 2015 and October 2015-September 2016. This is a relatively slight decrease. The 153,295 El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans detained at Mexico’s southern border this fiscal year are, in fact, the second most that Mexico has captured in the past nine years’ October-September periods. It is clear that Mexico’s southern border crackdown is largely still in force.
There are several reasons for the increased detentions of “Other than Mexicans” at the U.S-Mexican border. For one, the figures reflect the fact that Mexican migration authorities working near the Central America border are dealing not only with continuing flows of Central Americans, but with a sharp increase in migrants from Cuba who, due to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, will be welcomed by U.S. authorities if they can make it to a U.S.-Mexico border crossing. “So far in fiscal year 2016, encounters with Cuban migrants at land ports of entry [U.S.-Mexico border crossings] have increased 84.3% over the same period in fiscal year 2015,” Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alan Bersin testified in March. (Cuban migrants are not reflected in Border Patrol’s apprehension statistics, as current law does not consider them to be “undocumented aliens.”)
Another reason is the adaptability of migrant smugglers operating in southern Mexico. By seeking new routes, or by corrupting Mexican migration and law-enforcement personnel along the way, smuggling networks have adjusted to the tightened enforcement measures within the Southern Border Program. Experts and migrant rights advocates interviewed by WOLA indicate that this adjustment has come at a cost: migrant smugglers’ fees have increased, with reports of $10,000 for passage from Central America to U.S. territory becoming more common. The increase is probably the result of steeper bribes and greater travel costs along more complex routes. While solid evidence for this is lacking, anecdotal reports and the gradual nature of increased migrant apprehensions point to smugglers’ steady adaptation inside Mexico.
A third, and most fundamental, reason is that the factors driving so many Central Americans to leave their country—often urgently—remain in place and unchanged. Chronic poverty has been driving a steady number of Central American citizens to leave their countries in search of opportunity or survival for many years. But a large proportion of recent migrants are fleeing, at least in part, from a region that now has higher levels of violence than any other region in the world that is not in a state of war.
Working with government officials and civil societies throughout the region, we must address these intractable challenges of violence and organized crime that lead so many people, especially children and families, to leave their homes. There is no short-term fix, though: the post-2014 “surge” experience shows that border buildups and migration crackdowns will not make the problem of Central American child and family migration go away. We must address the root causes.