An unexpected summer upsurge in the number of unaccompanied children and migrant families apprehended along the southwest border has raised concerns about the potential of another migrant crisis.
This latest surge is significant because migration numbers historically drop at the end of the summer as temperatures rise and desert travel becomes more dangerous.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection acknowledged a rise in the number of children and parents stopped at the border in July and August but emphasized that apprehensions are down overall for the year.
If the September numbers are higher than the August numbers, then that would be a real cause for alarm.
Marc Rosenblum, Migration Policy Institute
More than 4,500 unaccompanied children and 5,100 families were apprehended in August, which is greater than any previous August since at least 2011, according to a breakdown of the apprehension data obtained this week by McClatchy. If the upswing continues, experts say it could be a sign of a meaningful trend.
“If the September numbers are higher than the August numbers, then that would be a real cause for alarm,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center devoted to migration.
The exact reasons for the late rise are unclear, but U.S. officials, border agents and policy experts cite three probable factors: worsening violence in Central America, less effective enforcement by Mexico of Central Americans crossing its territory on the way to the United States, and a federal court decision in July that blocked the Obama administration’s ability to detain mothers and children for longer than a few days.
Word has made its way back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that the U.S. will release migrants if they come with their children, said Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent who is vice president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents the interests of Border Patrol agents. He noted the timing of the recent wave of immigrants to the federal court’s decision in July that found the administration was wrongly detaining children and their parents.
“Things go out in the media,” Cabrera said. “People read that and relay it back to their family and friends in their home country and it start the process running.”
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ruled in July that the Obama administration’s family detention policy violated an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children.
Immigration officials dramatically built up their capacity to detain mothers and children last year, when nearly 70,000 parents and children risked their lives to come to the United States.
Like last year, this latest surge undoubtedly will test the government’s ability to carry out its main duties of stopping illegal immigration while protecting legitimate refugee cases.
Things go out in the media. People read that and relay it back to their family and friends in their home country and it start the process running.
Chris Cabrera, Border Patrol agent
But now it will have to do so with limited ability to detain parents and children. Benjamin Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general, warned Judge Gee that another surge of migrant families was possible if migrants thought bringing their children would provide an avenue to avoid detention.
Human smugglers likely would highlight the court decision and administration policy changes to get more clients to cross the border, Rosenblum said.
But Rosenblum, who has studied both the U.S. and Mexican enforcement data, said he’s not sure the numbers would be any different if Judge Gee had ruled differently. He cited rising violence in El Salvador and migrants finding ways to evade Mexican enforcement on their way to the United States.
More than 900 people in El Salvador were murdered in August – an average of nearly 30 every day, according to that country’s Institute of Legal Medicine.
In Mexico, it’s unclear whether the government has been able to sustain a high level of migration enforcement along its southern border. Mexican officials deported 3,819 unaccompanied minors from Central America during the first five months of the fiscal year – a 56 percent increase over the same period a year earlier, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Mexican and U.S. government data.
Rosenblum, who has looked at the Mexican numbers, said he’s waiting for complete data for the third quarter but that the information available so far indicates that Mexico continues to detain and deport Central American migrants, but that because more people are coming, more are getting through.
Carlos Lazo, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, emphasized that overall apprehensions are down from last year. But he also acknowledged that economic and safety concerns in Central America as well as misinformation spread by smugglers about U.S. policies had driven a recent increase.
The U.S. government recently launched a public awareness campaign in Central America warning against making the dangerous of journey and dispelling some of the misinformation about U.S. policies.