President Trump now finds himself struggling with one of the main immigration challenges that also faced his predecessors: How to grapple with a major shift at the southwestern border away from lone Mexican men seeking work and toward Central American families fleeing violence in their home countries.
Although overall illegal immigration rates last year reached a 46-year low, there has been a sharp evolution in the profile of the arriving immigrants, experts said. The flow is increasingly dominated by families — including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children — seeking to escape criminal gangs, drug cartels and domestic violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
In March, 8,900 families and 4,100 unaccompanied children crossed the border illegally, according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In all, 62,000 have arrived over the past six months — nearing the peak rates of an earlier crisis under former president Barack Obama.
The phenomenon presents a challenge for the U.S. legal system, which offers greater protections for these particular migrants, allowing them to remain in the country longer and preventing federal immigration agents from detaining them for lengthy periods. And it means that traditional enforcement tactics are inadequate.
For Trump — who this week announced plans to work with governors to dispatch National Guard troops to the border — the surge in women and children from Central America over the past six months has threatened to undermine his administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal border crossings and his desire to fulfill his hard-line campaign promises on immigration. He has reacted by sounding alarms — including incendiary remarks on Thursday suggesting that female migrants “are raped at levels nobody’s ever seen before.”
He also has sought to blame Democrats for the continuing influx, even though he lambasted Obama for failing to stanch the flow in 2014. “Nobody could be that incompetent to allow what is happening to happen,” Trump told Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren in July of that year, after Central American children had overwhelmed patrol stations and created a humanitarian crisis.
By the end of 2014, 137,000 children and families had arrived — twice as many as the year before. The number of unaccompanied children was nearly 3½ times greater than in 2012. The Obama administration attempted to cope with the crisis by working with Mexico to secure its borders, delivering $750 million in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and allowing migrants to apply for U.S. asylum while still in their own countries.
But now, with a new surge underway, Trump is signaling a harder-line approach — threatening to punish Mexico on trade and to withhold foreign-aid money from the three Northern Triangle countries.
Talking to reporters on Air Force One on Thursday, Trump said the administration would like to see between 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops at the border. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said their activities would include “aviation, engineering, surveillance, communications, vehicle maintenance and logistical support” to border agents as they perform law enforcement duties.
Although the military approach might appeal to the president’s conservative base, it is unlikely to have much impact, experts said. Most of the Central Americans surrender directly to Border Patrol stations in hopes of winning asylum protections.
“Sending our military to the border, building a wall — that’s not going to be a solution,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense. “They provide some photo op for the administration, but other than that they’re misusing resources. People are more afraid of what’s happening in Central America than what’s happening on the U.S. border.”
Beyond the political debate and Trump’s tweets — including his inflated warnings about a “caravan” of more than 1,000 Hondurans that unsuccessfully tried to reach the United States this week — the reality is that tactics traditionally employed by U.S. immigration agencies are not tailored to meet the emerging problem.
One former Obama administration official suggested that “there would be a lot less anxiety if these were adults from Mexico rather than families and children, because the tools of detention and removal are difficult for them to use on these two populations.” The official added that “the people who want to be tough don’t know how to be tough.”
Trump aides contend that it was Obama who did not know how to be tough. In his 2014 interview on Fox, Trump suggested that Obama was happy with the crisis because the migrants would remain and become Democratic voters — even though the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have no path to citizenship under U.S. law.
“They’re flowing through like crazy,” Trump said, as Van Susteren’s show played clips of children crowded into Border Patrol stations. “I’m hearing stories where the parents come through in a different line and they all meet up in the United States and get plenty from the United States. It’s a very serious problem.”
What Trump was misleadingly describing was that tens of thousands of minors were arriving on their own and nearly as many more were traveling with adults, mostly women without male partners. Many of the children sought to be reunited with parents or other relatives already living in the United States.
Border Patrol officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are limited in how they can respond. In December 2008, in the final months of the George W. Bush administration, an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress approved a bill called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. That law granted minors from nations other than Mexico or Canada the right to an immigration court hearing before they could be deported.
The law also mandated that the children be referred to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of their detainment and be placed in the least-restrictive setting possible as they awaited their asylum hearings, which because of backlogs often took more than a year. The migrants were often sent to live with relatives across the country, and some never showed up for their court hearings.
The Trump administration is preparing a new public relations campaign to push lawmakers to “close the loopholes” in immigration laws this spring. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said this week that before 2011, more than 90 percent of undocumented immigrants were single adult men but that today, 40 percent are families and children.
One in 10 of all new arrivals are claiming “credible fear” and seeking asylum, she said, compared with 1 in 100 before 2013.
“Smugglers themselves are gaming the system, pure and simple,” Nielsen said.
Immigrant rights advocates said Obama also relied on deterrence measures. His administration publicly called on Mexico to strengthen its southern border and conducted an advertising campaign to dissuade Central Americans from undertaking the dangerous journey north. The Obama administration opened more family detention facilities, drawing criticism from advocates over the spartan conditions.
Obama sought to balance his approach by also working more closely with leaders in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to the region and meeting with the foreign leaders at the White House.
But by 2016, the total number of children and families crossing the southwestern border — 137,366 — was several hundred more than two years before.
“As ridiculous as it sounds, the laws of our country do not easily allow us to send those crossing our Southern Border back where they came from,” Trump wrote on Twitter this week. “A whole big wasted procedure must take place. Mexico & Canada have tough immigration laws, whereas ours are an Obama joke. ACT CONGRESS.”
Immigration advocates said Trump’s approach is doomed to fail. Congress, which has failed to strike a major immigration deal in decades, is highly unlikely to do so in a midterm-election year. And advocates said the conditions in the Northern Triangle will not improve without help from the United States.
“Trump has doubled down on the deterrence policy, which failed under Obama and will continue to fail,” said Kevin Appleby, a senior director at the Center for Migration Studies of New York. “The forces pushing people out [of Central America] are stronger than any deterrence factors that may be deployed.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.