From the 1960s to the early 2000s, the reality of illegal immigration at the southwest border was overwhelmingly economic migration from Mexico. The U.S. responded, especially once the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted tighter security everywhere, by building up a well-resourced, modernized, hardened border enforcement infrastructure, with more staff and more sophisticated strategies. Successive Congresses and administrations under the leadership of both Democrats and Republicans have supported major investments in border security as an urgent national priority. About $14 billion was allocated in fiscal year 2017 for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a steep rise from $9.5 billion a decade earlier.
From a peak of 1.6 million apprehensions in fiscal 2000 — with 98 percent of those apprehended Mexicans — border apprehensions have fallen by about three-quarters, to 397,000 last year. More Mexicans now return to Mexico annually than enter the United States. The turnaround has been dramatic and is due to the combined effects of economic growth, falling fertility rates and improved education and job prospects in Mexico; job losses in the United States surrounding the 2008-2009 recession; and significant border enforcement successes.
At the same time, an entirely different type of migration became more common. Beginning in 2012, the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America — principally El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — crossing the border illegally jumped sharply. Modest numbers of such migrants had been arriving for many years. However, by 2014, the arrival of unaccompanied children spiked to more than 67,000 and, for the first time, the number of non-Mexican apprehensions exceeded those of Mexicans.
By 2016, the Central American flows became predominantly families with young children. Some were fleeing their countries in search of economic opportunity, but many were seeking safety and protection from widespread violence and gang activity that especially targets young people approaching or already in their teens.
Last year, 40 percent of border apprehensions were either of migrant families or unaccompanied minors, as compared to 10 percent in 2012. The proportion has risen to 60 percent in recent months, and just-released numbers show 66,450 apprehensions last month, the highest February total in a decade.
The important story, however, is not so much the numbers, which remain well below earlier peaks, as it is the change in the character of the flow. Today’s migrants include especially vulnerable populations, a large share of whom are seeking safety. As my organization reported recently, more than one in three border crossers today is an unaccompanied child or asylum seeker, up from approximately one in 100 a decade ago.
Yet the U.S. government’s posture has not been recalibrated, remaining pointed toward an illegal immigration pattern that has largely waned.
Today, many people who cross the border illegally actively seek out and turn themselves in to enforcement officials so they can apply for asylum. Others have been presenting themselves at ports of entry, seeking protection. Ground sensors, camera towers and similar surveillance technology and infrastructure are less helpful as a result.
Border Patrol facilities are designed for holding people only for short periods because that used to be all they needed to do: Most Mexicans who are apprehended are processed and returned across the border within hours. The same is not the case for Central Americans and others from noncontiguous countries, increasing numbers of whom are arriving exhausted and in ill health after lengthy, arduous journeys. They can’t simply be driven back to Mexico, because they’re not from there in the first place.
Border Patrol stations are ill-suited for dealing with these vulnerable populations, as the tragedy of the two young children who died recently in Border Patrol custody sadly illustrates. The situation has been further taxed by the increasing numbers of what the Border Patrol refers to as large-group arrivals: In the first five months of this fiscal year, the Border Patrol encountered 70 groups of more than 100 migrants crossing illegally, up from 13 last year and two the year before.
Asylum officers and immigration judges, not Border Patrol and port-of-entry inspectors, make the decisions in asylum cases. The asylum and immigration court systems don’t have anywhere near the sustained funding spent on border enforcement programs. As larger shares of migrants have arrived claiming asylum, workloads have ballooned into huge backlogs as a result. And even in cases where resources have been provided, they are not always used: Congress has allocated funding for 534 immigration judges, and yet only 427 are serving. Children and families are vulnerable to physical and emotional health dangers that argue for minimal detention periods, but their cases can take months or years to decide. And policies that precipitated the separation of more than 2,700 children from their parents have only added to the trauma.
These and other factors point to the need for dramatically different border management policies and budget decisions from those made in the past, largely successfully, to deter illegal inflows from Mexico.
Testifying in Congress last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the situation at the border has reached a “breaking point.” There is a crisis, but it is a crisis of an asylum system that is severely overburdened by the major uptick in humanitarian protection claims.
The asylum system can only work effectively with timely, fair decisions about who is eligible for protection — and who is not, and therefore must be returned to their country of origin. More broadly, just as improved conditions in Mexico have been key to reducing illegal crossings of Mexicans, the best way to prevent Central Americans from fleeing their native countries must include attacking the violence, corruption and poverty driving them to leave home.
Yet the Trump administration has curtailed access to asylum and ended a program allowing some Central Americans to apply for protection from within the region to keep pressure off the border. Most recently, the administration rolled out a new policy that forces some asylum seekers to stay in Mexico in highly uncertain conditions to await asylum decisions, which they are told may take up to a year. Such measures seem only to be spurring on prospective migrants to journey to the U.S. before policies get even more restrictive.
This is not to say there are easy answers. Dealing with mixed flows is a challenge not only for the United States but for other major migrant destinations in Europe and beyond. Building systems that can sift through mixed flows to fairly and efficiently provide protection to those who truly qualify and identify and remove those who don’t is difficult.
But course corrections are well past due.
Steps that could be taken now include devoting money and applying new strategies to the asylum and immigration court systems so they can effectively handle a burgeoning caseload, rather than greatly narrowing who can access them. Building suitable Border Patrol facilities for receiving children and families and training agents and other staff to spot and act upon medical and other emergencies would also be required. The government could foster networks of community-based monitoring and case management programs with legal representation that provide alternatives to detention so migrants are detained for minimal periods, at less overall expense and are treated more humanely, but still appear for their asylum interviews and deportation hearings.
Ramped-up anti-smuggling initiatives and intelligence cooperation with neighboring countries are a must. Affected communities on both sides of the border need support and new partnerships with government actors, especially in the face of caravans, a method of movement on the rise among Central Americans to gain safety in numbers but posing new logistical and political difficulties for governments. And U.S. policies must give greater priority to our geographic neighborhood in developing longer-term solutions with Mexico and Central America that are in our joint national interests.
Rather than unproductive political fights over walls and national emergency declarations, these steps would go a long way to restoring order at the border. It is past time for policymakers and the public to recognize there are no quick fixes but that, even with migrant arrivals on the rise, the border can be managed through an array of proven policy initiatives.