4 reasons the number of families crossing the US-Mexico border illegally is soaring, and how Trump may have made the problem worse

A group of Central American migrants climbing the border fence between Mexico and the United States, near El Chaparral border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico, on November 25.

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A group of Central American migrants climbing the border fence between Mexico and the United States, near El Chaparral border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico, on November 25.
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Agence France-Presse/Pedro Pardo via Getty Images

  • The number of migrants apprehended crossing the US-Mexico border illegally jumped to more than 66,000 in February – and more than half of them were families.
  • Despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and the asylum system, a record number of families are crossing.
  • Numerous causes are at play – key among them the deep poverty in the Northern Triangle countries from which migrants are fleeing.
  • But some have also pointed to the Trump administration’s family separations last year, which may have inadvertently highlighted the protections that children are granted under US law.

After years of steady declines, the number of migrants apprehended crossing the US border illegally has begun to soar, posing new challenges for President Donald Trump’s immigration strategy and adding fuel to his argument that the border is in a “crisis.”

Trump has cracked down on asylum seekers, attempted an ill-fated “zero tolerance” policy, and tried to block multiple caravans of migrants from entering the US, but the number of families illegally crossing the border keeps climbing.

The number of apprehensions in February climbed so high that it barely fit on the chart that US Customs and Border Protection updates each month:

cbp migration graphic

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Customs and Border Protection

A confluence of factors have led to the sharp spike in Central American families turning up at the US-Mexico border, exhausted and often ill after long and dangerous journeys north.

Here’s what’s going on:

People are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America

The largest proportion of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border hail from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, which make up Central America’s Northern Triangle, where severe poverty and widespread gang violence have prompted huge swaths of the population to flee.

Much of the American media coverage has focused on people escaping violence, but many of the migrants are trying to come to the US for economic reasons, not necessarily out of imminent fear for their safety.

Migrants who traveled as part of the caravans to the US, for instance, frequently told reporters they were making the trek because they hoped to work, provide for their children, and earn better wages.

Experts have acknowledged that many of these migrants may not be eligible for asylum, as they don’t face persecution in their home countries.

But some say that fact highlights the near-impossibility of legal immigration to the US.

“A big portion of them are economic migrants. And there’s nothing wrong with that – that is the American tradition,” Jordan Bruneau, a senior policy analyst at the Becoming American Initiative, told INSIDER in January. “They’re coming to seek a better life, and if they want to come here to work … there should be a way for them to do so.”

It used to be single men trying to cross the border. Now it’s families.

The key difference between the migrants crossing the border today, versus even just a few years ago, is the proportion of families and children crossing the US-Mexico border.

In February 2019, 36,174 of the 66,450 people apprehended at the border were members of “family units.” In February 2015, by comparison, just 2,041 were family units.

Read more: ‘Does it differ from the cages you put your dogs in?’: Democrats lambaste Kirstjen Nielsen over whether migrant children are still held in cages at the border

That demographic shift matters – even though the overall border-crossing numbers are vastly lower than they were 20 years ago, the new wave of migrants pose a new set of challenges for the Border Patrol agents intercepting them.

When border crossers consisted mostly of single Mexican men, the US could deport them almost immediately after arresting them. But families with children pose more complex legal challenges and often present more urgent medical needs.

A longstanding court order, for instance, prohibits children from spending more than 72 hours detained in Border Patrol stations. They also are not supposed to spend more than 20 days in detention centers.

Only three facilities in the US are permitted to house children, and all of them are at capacity.

The Trump administration’s failed ‘zero tolerance’ policy probably increased the number of families trying to enter the US

When the Trump administration began forcibly separating thousands of migrant children from their parents at the border last spring under the “zero tolerance” policy, it was widely viewed as an effort to deter families from seeking asylum in the US.

Though Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has consistently denied that the efforts were intended to deter migrants – she has said the policy was merely to prosecute all adults for the misdemeanor offense of crossing the border illegally – the separations sparked widespread outrage and condemnation for their perceived cruelty.

The policy ultimately ended with Trump halting the separations in an executive order, and a federal judge ordering the administration to reunite the families.

Yet far from deterring successive waves of migrants, the failed policy may actually have highlighted America’s various legal protections for migrant families – or at least reassured parents that they wouldn’t face separation from their children – and emboldened more to attempt the journey.

CBP officials and Border Patrol agents have told The New York Times and The Washington Post they believe the public failure of the zero-tolerance policy encouraged smugglers and migrant parents to travel to the US accompanied by children.

America’s labyrinth of asylum laws make it hard to deport migrants – especially if they’re children

Many of the migrants arrested at the US-Mexico border are not trying to evade Border Patrol agents and enter the country undetected – they want authorities to find them so they can make asylum claims.

That routine is a relatively new phenomenon that didn’t exist 10 years ago. In 2008, 5,047 migrants sought to claim asylum at the border. In 2018, that number was 92,959.

The government can deport migrants who are ultimately denied asylum. But for many, that process lasts years, and the Trump administration has frequently complained that migrants fail to show up for their court hearings, even though Justice Department data indicates that 60% to 75% of nondetained migrants attend their hearings.

The Trump administration has argued that migrant families are flooding the immigration system with bogus asylum claims, knowing their cases don’t pass legal muster.

But experts have cautioned against dismissing migrants’ claims as fraudulent – just because a migrant’s fears don’t meet the Trump administration’s limited definition of persecution doesn’t mean they don’t truly fear for their lives back home, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council.

Read more: Thousands of migrant children were reportedly sexually abused in US government custody

“The administration believes that most Central Americans file frivolous asylum applications. The evidence doesn’t support that,” Reichlin-Melnick told INSIDER. “The government would argue that high denial rates indicate they’re fraudulent asylum claims … The more likely answer is that people are genuinely afraid for their lives – they may not know the ins and outs of a complex asylum system.”

Beyond that, children’s protections under US asylum laws have added an additional layer to the already complicated system. For instance, the US government is not permitted to immediately deport unaccompanied children, unless they’re from Canada or Mexico, countries contiguous to the US.

That law has prevented the government from immediately turning around the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who arrive in the US each year, who must then spend weeks in packed children’s shelters while they wait for the government to release them to sponsors, usually parents or family members in the US.

Nielsen urged lawmakers during a congressional hearing on Wednesday to change asylum laws so Central American children could be more easily deported.

“We don’t want the smugglers to be able to convince parents to send their children on this perilous journey,” she told lawmakers. “We have to give every girl a pregnancy test over 10. This is not a safe journey. If they don’t have a legal right to stay, the most humanitarian thing to do is remove them efficiently and effectively.”