GUATEMALA CITY — Kevin McAleenan, the United States’ top border security official, was halfway through a three-country tour of Central America, worriedly looking at his phone.
“Look at that,” McAleenan said, scrolling through images that resembled the refugee caravans of Syria, or Myanmar, not the mountains west of Tucson. “One hundred seventy people,” he said.
Groups of Central Americans nearly that large had been coming across the Rio Grande in South Texas in recent months, turning themselves in and claiming a fear of return to prevent their quick deportation. Now it was happening in Arizona.
McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, traveled last week to Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — to seek their governments’ help and bring attention to a migration surge he has declared “a crisis.”
But instead of quick solutions, his trip mostly highlighted the deep structural forces threatening to send even more migrants north: hunger, joblessness and the gravitational pull of the American economy. The Trump administration has already tried to stop them with one of the harshest measures in its tool kit — separating parents from their children — and the strategy failed.
In the three months since President Trump halted the separations amid a public outcry, the trend it was intended to deter has gotten significantly worse. In August, 12,774 migrant family members were taken into custody along the Mexico border, a 38 percent jump from the previous month, and agents say September’s numbers appear to be headed even higher.
Trump erupted earlier this year when border arrests skyrocketed, but on Friday he signed a spending package that did not include the billions he sought for construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico. The measure requires lawmakers to revisit the issue after the November elections.
The stream of families arriving at the border each week has left McAleenan and other Homeland Security officials making futile appeals to Congress to fix the problem, while maneuvering to detain migrant parents and children long enough for courts to process their immigration claims, which could take months.
In the meantime, parents who arrive with children and cite a fear of return are typically released from immigration custody within days of arrival. U.S. family detention centers don’t have enough bed space to accommodate them, and U.S. courts are too clogged to process their cases within the 20-day period that children can be held in immigration jails.
“Our legal framework continues to act as a powerful magnet for families and children seeking a better life,” McAleenan, who invited a small group of reporters on his trip, said in an interview. “As a result, transnational criminal organizations are profiting from a billion-dollar human smuggling industry that treats people like a disposable commodity.”
“We see it every day on the border and at our ports of entry,” he added. “High-speed chases, people being smuggled in tractor-trailers, and bodies found in the desert and on our riverbeds are all terrible symptoms of the same complicated problem. CBP cannot fix this problem by ourselves.”
The number of Guatemalan migrants arrested at the U.S. border this year has nearly doubled as more indigenous villagers abandon the country’s impoverished western highlands, where malnutrition rates exceed 65 percent, the highest in the Western Hemisphere, according to U.S. Agency for International Development data. That crisis has been exacerbated by consecutive years of drought and meager harvests.
Guatemalan community leaders told McAleenan that smuggling guides who charge $10,000 for a trip to the United States capitalize on the dysfunction of the American immigration system.
“They say that if you bring a child they’ll let you into the United States and give you citizenship,” said Dora Alonzo Quijivix, describing the sales pitch during a meeting McAleenan attended with indigenous leaders in Quetzaltenango, the largest city in the western highlands. “Now they’re saying pregnant women who go will also get citizenship.”
Quijivix said she’s heard smugglers say this on local radio stations.
McAleenan told the group that such claims were false and that the United States needed to do a better job of countering them. “There’s no ability to stay in the U.S. if you bring a child with you,” he said. “There’s no ability to just stay if you are pregnant. But our court system is very slow, so you might actually have a false promise of being able to stay in the U.S. for a year or two before you are repatriated.”
For years, the United States has funded advertising campaigns warning Guatemalans of the dangers of illegal migration, but in a country where mistrust of the government runs deep, that message is belied by the large homes and other trappings of prosperity among those with a son, sibling or spouse living abroad. Guatemalans send home nearly $9 billion a year in remittances, according to the latest government data, twice as much as they did a decade ago.
The smugglers’ hook is also supported by the latest statistics showing how few families who reach the United States have been sent back. The United States deported 333 underage Guatemalan migrants between January and August, according to the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration. Mexico, which does not afford children and families the same legal protections, deported 7,910 during that same period.
The IOM data shows the United States sent back 524 children and teens to the three Northern Triangle countries combined between January and August, while Mexico deported 14,499.
According to U.S. Homeland Security statistics, only 1.4 percent of the family members from Northern Triangle countries who entered the United States illegally during the government’s 2017 fiscal year have been returned to their home countries. The vast majority remain in the United States waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated, but an immigration court backlog of nearly 750,000 cases means it may be years before they appear before a judge.
Homeland Security officials say these “loopholes” are facilitating an increasingly dangerous and lucrative smuggling system that subjects migrants to horrific abuse. But they are not easily deterred.
“If people feel threatened by a gang and don’t have job opportunities, or their child is getting what they perceive as a marginal education, then the risk of the journey outweighs the reality that they would otherwise live in,” said Heide B. Fulton, the top U.S. diplomat in Honduras. The nation was the second-largest source of illegal migration this year.
The latest border data shows an especially large increase in the number of adult men arriving with children, from 7,896 in the government’s 2016 fiscal year to 16,667 this year. Homeland Security officials have also documented a threefold increase in fraud cases of migrants claiming to be the parents of children who are not their own.
McAleenan found little evidence in Guatemala that the latest migration surge is fueled by worsening violence. Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle countries remain among the highest in the world, but they have fallen over the last several years, and Guatemala’s murder rate is at a 17-year low.
“While violence is a factor in some areas, it is no longer a key driver for migration in the region,” he said.
Instead, during meetings with business groups, community leaders and Central American officials, McAleenan heard that more traditional migration factors are pushing families to leave: too many young people, too few jobs and widespread rural poverty. Guatemala has the highest population growth rate in Latin America, and nearly half the country is younger than 19, according to U.S. data.
Those young people are a relatively short trip away from the booming American economy, where jobs are plentiful, wages are 10 to 15 times as high and Guatemalans have family members willing to lend them money for the journey.
“Economic opportunity and governance play much larger roles in affecting the decision for migrants to take the trip north to the United States,” McAleenan said, calling for “a sustained campaign that addresses both push and pull factors” as “the only solution to this crisis.”
New instability and political polarization in Guatemala could make things worse in the coming year. President Jimmy Morales in early September barred the director of a U.N. anti-corruption body, known as the CICIG, from returning to the country, accusing him of abusing his authority.
Widely credited for strengthening the country’s justice system and the rule of law, CICIG investigators have charged Morales’s son and brother with campaign finance crimes. But Morales has declined to renew the U.N. body’s mandate, sparking protests amid warnings of eroding democratic rule.
American officials have been hesitant to criticize Morales, but when McAleenan asked a group of coffee producers how to help them create more jobs to slow illegal migration, one executive, Italo Antoniotti, told him the United States needs to stand up for the U.N. body.
“Corruption is the main source of poverty,” he said.