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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In May 2018, the Trump administration enacted a highly controversial immigration policy in an attempt to reduce the volume of immigrants attempting to illegally enter the U.S. across the southwest border. Apprehended border crossers are now being referred for criminal prosecution. Until recently, they were being separated from their children under the auspices of a 1997 court settlement.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is attempting to reunite separated families before deporting them. But based on hundreds of reports, the entire process has been traumatizing for many involved. Worse yet, there is currently no evidence that family separations or criminal prosecution is preventing more illegal border crossings.
Determining if Border Security Policies Work
There are two primary ways to determine if a border security policy is working to deter illegal immigration: analyzing monthly apprehension statistics compiled by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and interviewing actual border crossers. The numbers are more concrete in a way because they provide something that can be measured.
However, Border Patrol agents only capture a fraction of the people attempting to cross the border. CBP still doesn’t have in place a method for measuring how many migrants manage to successfully enter the U.S. illegally. That being said, apprehension numbers provide a useful tool for comparative analysis and identifying trends like seasonal immigration surges.
Interviews of migrants are obviously quite subjective, but they provide very useful feedback on the impact of U.S. immigration policies in their countries of origin. They also help determine how human smugglers — and the drug cartels that employ them — are adjusting to policy changes. These adjustments can take the form of hiking up smuggling fees or dangerously modifying transit routes to lower-risk border crossings.
April through June tends to be “border surge” season; the freezing desert nights have passed and the daytime heat is still somewhat bearable. Apprehensions along the southwest border almost always rise during these months, but the Trump administration will instead be looking for a decline to determine if the “zero tolerance” policy is having its intended deterrent effect.
June 2018 apprehension numbers aren’t in yet, but CBP saw an almost 2 percent increase in apprehensions from April to May 2018. They have also seen a 160 percent increase from this time last year.
Border Crossers Willing to Risk US Apprehension Rather than Facing Death in Home Countries
CBP’s June, July and August apprehension stats will be much more telling, but anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers won’t be significantly lower. In late June, CNN interviewed a Honduran woman who had been apprehended by Border Patrol agents, along with her teenage son. She told CNN she had no idea that, until recently, families were being separated at the border.
The journey for most border crossers — especially those traveling from Central America — can take months, and word of changing border policies can take time to reach them. However, this mother and her son said they still would have come if they had known they would likely be separated.
A young man with a three-year-old son in the same migrant group as the woman said that they left Honduras because he was being extorted by gang members threatening to kill him and his son. He also didn’t know about the “zero tolerance” immigration policy before being apprehended. However, he said he would prefer “a million times” over a few days of struggling in the United States than one more day in Honduras under the threat of death.
History also demonstrates that Trump’s current immigration policy is unlikely to be effective. Operation Streamline began in December 2005 as a pilot program in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, explained NPR. Just like now, the Border Patrol began referring every first-time crosser for prosecution. Prior to that, the immigrants had been allowed to return to Mexico without criminal charges, a procedure called voluntary departure.
New Immigration Policy Clogging US Court System
However, the only real impact the policy seems to have had is backing up the U.S. court system. Today, nearly 60 percent of all prosecutions for all federal crimes in the nation are for immigration violations, according to the TRAC project at Syracuse University. Joseph Cordova, supervisory assistant federal public defender in Del Rio, told NPR, “Operation Streamline has been going on for a number of years and it doesn’t seem to be deterring people from coming into the country.”
Currently, there is no reason to believe the outcome of the current “zero tolerance” policy will be any different than Operation Streamline. Apprehension statistics in the next few months may show otherwise, but based on feedback from Central American migrants, immigrants will continue their attempts to enter the U.S. illegally.
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