March tends to be a heavier-than-average month for arrivals of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. This year is different, though: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports apprehending only 12,193 migrants at the border in March 2017, including 1,043 unaccompanied children and 1,125 members of family units, primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
This is by far the smallest monthly total that has been measured since at least October 1999, the earliest month for which DHS makes statistics publicly available (PDF). It is quite likely the smallest monthly total since the 1970s. The second-smallest total was February 2017, Donald Trump’s first full month in the presidency.
In Mexico, too, authorities have seen a significant drop in apprehensions of migrants from Central America. The 6,365 Central American migrant apprehensions Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) measured in February 2017 were the fewest on record since January 2014.
“This decrease in apprehensions is no accident,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a Senate committee on April 5. Undocumented migration to the United States seems to have experienced a “Trump effect”: arrivals in the months before the president’s January inauguration were far higher than normal, and far lower than normal in the first two months after. This effect is especially dramatic for arrivals of unaccompanied children and families.
Little else seems to explain how family-unit apprehensions might, in 3 months, decline from their 2nd-highest level to their 6th-lowest of the past 54 months. Even though the new U.S. administration’s tough migration and border security policies have barely begun to be implemented, the mere promise—along with news coverage of detentions and deportations—has dampened migration flows, for now.
Migrants may be seeking more remote and dangerous routes. It’s important to note that the drop in apprehensions of families and children at the border may be less sharp than the numbers indicate—the promise of a tougher reception may be decreasing the number of kids and families who seek out U.S. authorities upon crossing into the United States. If more are now trying to evade apprehension, Border Patrol data would miss those who succeed.
This shift in numbers seems too extreme to be stable. If the March 2017 total were to be sustained for 12 months, Border Patrol would apprehend only 146,316 migrants in a year, and 26,016 of them would be children and families, most of them asylum-seekers from Central America. 146,000 migrants would be the lowest yearly total since 1969, when Border Patrol apprehended 137,968 migrants (PDF).
At that level, each of the 17,000 Border Patrol agents (PDF) stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border would apprehend an average of 9 migrants over the course of the entire year, or 1 every 6 weeks. That is a long time to go without apprehending any migrants—certainly too long to justify building an expensive wall or hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents.
But 12,000 apprehensions per month is also too low to expect to be a “new normal” in the face of current realities in Central America and along the U.S.-Mexico border. WOLA predicts that, within a few months, migration numbers will increase from their present levels, despite the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric. These numbers are unlikely to return to the unusually high levels of late 2016 which, as we note in the discussion of migrant smuggling below, were also part of a “Trump effect.” Instead, monthly apprehensions are more likely to return to a level that is a rough average of the current extremely low amount and late 2016’s extreme highs.
This is likely for two compelling reasons:
1. Violence continues to plague Central America. Gang violence and organized crime are major challenges, and state institutions are too weak to be able to effectively control criminal activity. A large number of recent migrants from Central America, especially children and families, have been pushed out by criminal violence, especially the more aggressive tactics of gangs that target adolescents. Homicide rates in the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have eased modestly from their all-time highs, but remain at epidemic levels. Many women and children are victims of extortion, abuse, sexual assault, and gang-related violence. These remain among the world’s most violent countries not at war.
Data about Central Americans’ asylum requests outside the United States indicate that violence remains a strong “push factor” driving Central American migration. While fewer people may be arriving in the United States, other neighboring countries—Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama in particular—are starting to be seen as potential refuges by Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans fleeing violence. Mexico used to be a transit country, with Central Americans fleeing toward the U.S. border passing through the country. But in the last three years, asylum requests in Mexico have increased threefold, reaching 8,781 requests last year. While the short term numbers of apprehensions in Mexico dropped in the first months of 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR) will receive 20,000 asylum requests for the year as a whole. The “Trump effect” may be discouraging asylum-seekers from coming to the United States, but it is not discouraging fearful Northern Triangle citizens from fleeing their home countries.
That the monthly number of apprehended Central American child and family migrants has dropped by 90 percent since December doesn’t mean that only 10 percent had truly been fleeing violence. It more likely means that news of Donald Trump’s coming hard line influenced many migrants’ decisions about when to flee or where to seek protection. As long as the violence continues unabated in the region, we can expect another uptick in children and families requesting asylum in the United States and elsewhere.
2. There is no evidence that smuggling networks have gone out of business. The migrant-smuggling economy developed in response to demand. Based on recent travel to southern Mexico, discussions with migrant shelter personnel elsewhere, and press reports, WOLA believes that migrant smugglers were urging Central Americans who had decided to leave, especially children and families, to do so before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Just as today’s low numbers might be attributed to a “Trump effect,” so can the high numbers of late 2016. Smugglers may have convinced many would-be migrants to pack up and leave before the new U.S. president starts “building a wall,” as indicated by the very heavy months of migration during the last quarter of 2016.
This smuggler-network sales pitch may have “front-loaded” migration into the pre-January 20 period, and no similarly compelling narrative exists now. But the migrant-smuggling economy hasn’t gone away: it is doubtful that smugglers have decided to seek other employment. Existing networks, based on deeply ingrained relationships of government corruption all along the migration route, still exist. In the face of demand, this pattern of corruption and weak institutions will allow these networks to continue to flourish.
Smugglers’ activity is likely to recover. They merely await a new sales pitch, and initial reports indicate that smugglers’ rates are increasing. With such remarkably low February and March apprehension statistics, the U.S.-Mexico border right now is calmer than it has been in most Americans’ lifetimes. But it’s too early to draw any conclusions from this. This isn’t a vindication of hard-line policies. Nor is it evidence that border security, migration, and protection challenges have been overcome: many remain, though not as starkly as the current administration portrays them. We’ll know more in a few months.