Immigration watchdogs say the significant uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended along the Southwest border late last year underscores how dire the situation has become in Central America.
“This is not regular migration. This is people who are trying to survive,” Guillermo Cantor, deputy director of research at the American Immigration Council, said of those fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The latest figures released by the Department of Homeland Security show Customs and Border Protection stopped more than double the number of unaccompanied minors in October and November of 2015 as it did during the same period in 2014. The number of families arrested for illegally crossing during the same windows nearly tripled.
That increase is dwarfed by the tens of thousands of individuals who made the hazardous journey during the summer of 2014, a mass exodus that led to the arrest of approximately 68,000 families (compared to the 21,000 detained in recent months) and 69,000 children (17,000, today) along the same international boundary.
That headline-making flood of asylum seekers poured into the country at the same time Obama and Republican lawmakers remained deadlocked on how best to address the humanitarian crisis . Then-Speaker John A. Boehner attempted to advance an immigration bundle designed to incorporate law-abiding undocumented workers already living in the U.S. more fully into society, but was dogged by infighting about "pathways to citizenship" and "amnesty."
The unexpected ouster of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his primary re-election loss a few months later knocked the wind out of the pro-reform efforts. President Barack Obama sought to relieve some of the burden via executive order, but also warned Central Americans considering making the trip that they would be sent right back.
Earlier this month, Obama authorized a crackdown on immigrants who arrived in 2014 who an immigration judge had ruled should be removed from the country, an operation that led to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials incarcerating more than 100 individuals expected to face deportation.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Tuesday that he spoke with DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson afternoon, and he expected there would be a "pause" with respect to the deportations that have raised the ire of many Democrats.
"I think we're moving forward to a resolution of this," Reid said.
Later Reid's office backed away from that assertion, a bit, saying Reid "hopes" for a pause.
Timothy Dunn, professor of sociology with the Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts at Salisbury University and author of two books about immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, chalked up the recent enforcement activity to reactionary politics.
“What happened to the big re-orientation of ICE to focus on ‘felons not families’? Guess that’s out now that ‘The Donald’ has stoked the public’s worst fears with complete disinformation and falsehoods about immigration,” he posited in an email.
Customs and Border Protection officials say the agencies have been "closely monitoring these trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” a spokesman said via email.
Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and director of the Immigration Clinic, is highly skeptical that traditional “pull” factors (think: surplus jobs, higher wages) are playing a significant role this time around.
“Mexican migration is at incredibly low levels, which you would expect to see change if workforce gains were an important cause of changes in the flows,” she asserted. When coupled with the fact that moms and kids are leading this charge rather than seasonal job seekers, Gilman said she believes fear is driving the new arrivals.
“These demographic realities point to violence, rather than employment issues, as the main triggers for migration,” she estimated.
Cantor said the mounting challenges — including extreme poverty, endemic gang violence, political corruption and crippling joblessness — heaped upon the average Central American are powerful motivators to risk everything and try whatever luck one may have left up north. “It is very hard for people to live there,” Cantor said.
And even though both the U.S. and Mexican authorities have in recent years ramped up efforts to return migrants to their place of origin (“Mexico has been very active in removing people and sending them back to Central America,” Cantor said.), getting stateside remains an incredible draw because so many others have already blazed the same trail.
According to a Migration Policy Institute fact sheet about the evolving immigration landscape, one in five Salvadorans and one in 15 Guatemalans and Hondurans already reside in the U.S.
“The U.S. appears like a natural choice when people are trying to escape,” Cantor said.
And that’s unlikely to change — unless the hazardous conditions plaguing Central Americans are finally addressed.
“Given the large number of people in the region who have ties to relatives and communities in the United States, as well as the lengthy backlogs in the U.S. court system for deciding their asylum claims, Central American migrants will continue to try to make their way to the United States, aided by smuggling networks that nimbly adapt to enforcement efforts, both in Mexico and the United States,” Migration Policy Institute scholars Marc R. Rosenblum and Isabel Ball predicted earlier this month.
Dunn said Uncle Sam ought to dig deep, because the U.S. has plenty to atone for, pointing to the U.S.'s "cold war support for allies that killed over 200,000 people in the 1980s in those three Central American nations (and 40,000 more if we include Nicaragua)” and blaming "disruptive trade policies" such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement “that leave few opportunities for small farmers or urban poor and workers.”
As for the future of enforcement, Dunn recommended taking a page from Nicaraguan leaders.
“Nicaragua has seen little migration to the U.S. (though lots to Costa Rica) despite great poverty, but has among lowest homicide rates in hemisphere. Their police approach is more aimed at prevention and youth and family programs, and much more successful,” he shared via email. “Our approach is a failure. We could learn from them.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Contact Rojas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas. Related: New Surge of Migrants Could Test Omnibus Spending Deal See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.