Two years ago, tens of thousands of Central American migrants—mostly minors and family units—flooded the U.S. border with Mexico to such a degree that the Obama administration labeled the influx a “humanitarian crisis.” According to Customs and Border Protection data, over 130,000 were apprehended.
U.S. Border Patrol stations, processing centers, and shelters were quickly overwhelmed, and the Department of Health and Human Services had to step in to manage care for thousands of unaccompanied minors. The U.S. government learned a difficult lesson in the summer of 2014 as a result and took several measures to prevent this crisis from happening again. However, border migrant apprehension and processing statistics for 2016 show that the numbers could be even higher by the end of this fiscal year.
The Northern Triangle
One of the largest controversies that emerged from the 2014 border was the underlying reason for the vast northbound migration. As in 2014, the majority of immigrants being apprehended at the southwest border in fiscal year 2016 are from the three countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, also known as the “Northern Triangle.” Immigrants from Central America have been crossing the Southwest border for many years; however, only in 2012 did they overtake Mexican immigrants as the largest demographic of people being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Obama Administration’s Immigration ‘Passes’
A major part of the narrative during this time was that these immigrants have been living in very poor economic conditions with few opportunities for education or employment for decades. Why would they all of a sudden head North to the U.S. in such large numbers? Proponents of tougher immigration controls argued that the Obama administration was virtually inviting immigrants to come to the U.S. by providing them with permisos, or passes, during immigration proceedings that would allow them to stay in the country legally for many years. While this wasn’t entirely true, many immigrants who were not deemed a threat to national security were simply told to return for a hearing, which due to the backlog of immigration cases likely wouldn’t be for three to five years. The rumors about lax U.S. immigration policies and procedures regarding Central American children and families was soon known as the “pull factor.”
While gang violence and murderers spurred on by drug trafficking activity are nothing new to Mexico or Central America in general, the levels of violence have definitely been increasing in recent years. This was the “push factor.” However, the key change to northbound migration patterns has occurred as a result of the deeper involvement of Mexican cartels and the smugglers they employ in the human smuggling trade. There are very few human smugglers who operate independently of a drug cartel, and they pay a large percentage of their income from immigrants to their cartel bosses. Human smuggling in Mexico has become so lucrative that cartels are using propaganda and aiding in the spread of rumors to encourage Central American migrants to hire their smugglers and bring them north.
The Largest Border Immigration Surge on Record
The Obama’s administration’s answer to this “push-pull” phenomenon was to embark on a huge public affairs campaign to inform Central American migrants that no free passes were being given at the border or in U.S. immigration courts. They also set aside funding for programs that would allow migrants to claim refugee status before leaving their home countries in an attempt to prevent the dangers of a potentially fatal journey. The funding package included $750 million in economic development aid for the migrants’ home countries. But according to The Washington Post, most of those funds have not been delivered to the region.
While border apprehension statistics dropped significantly for fiscal year 2015—perhaps signaling a strategic success—the numbers for fiscal year 2016 are on par to exceed those of 2014. Due to the logistical crisis of that summer, Border Patrol and social services facilities are better prepared to deal with a large surge of immigrants. However, it is clear the strategies implemented to prevent such a surge has not worked, and the Obama administration will have to come up with a more effective analysis and deterrence plan.