Illegal immigration's new normal in America

The summer of 2014 saw huge numbers of Central American women and children cross the US border. Now, it's happening again, and the factors driving it haven't changed. 

Eric Gay/AP/File
Immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally walk to a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio on July 7, 2015.

Undocumented immigrant families are being detained at the United States border in numbers not seen since 2014, suggesting that the surge in illegal immigration that summer was not an aberration but the establishment of a new normal.

A dramatic rise in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border in 2014 strained the country’s ability to cope with them legally and humanely. Indeed, a new Associated Press report suggests that the surge taxed the system so severely that some children have been released into abusive homes or trafficked into slavery.

By some measures, US authorities are better prepared for the current influx, with the Department of Health and Human Services using churches and nonprofit groups to take in the rising inflow of migrant children – with plans to open more shelters by April.

But the need appears to be, if anything, greater. Migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, in particular, continue to head north to escape extreme poverty, escalating violence, and crumbling government institutions. 

In the last three months of 2015, when illegal border crossings typically drop, the border patrol detained 21,469 Central Americans traveling as a family. That’s nearly triple the 2014 numbers during the same period, according to the latest Border and Customs Protection data. Meanwhile, the number of children traveling alone more than doubled to 17,370.

The new uptick comes after several months of decreasing border detentions, something analysts attribute primarily to a crackdown in Mexico that since 2014 has deported record numbers of Central Americans back to their home countries. But current migration patterns suggest that Central Americans and those who smuggle them across borders are gradually adjusting to Mexico’s strengthened enforcement, finding alternate routes.

Experts don’t expect that to change anytime soon. And so the US is looking to help Central American governments address root problems for the exodus – but it will take time to produce results, says Maureen Meyer, who directs Mexico programs for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It’s clear we’re going to see high numbers of Central Americans being apprehended at the US-Mexico border and in Mexico for the next few years,” says Ms. Meyer. “The odds are that in the short term, the situation in Central America is not going to change.”

'They know they'll be released'

The sharp rise in families and unaccompanied children from Central America comes during a presidential campaign that has seen Republicans fight to establish who is toughest on illegal immigration.

In January, the Obama administration launched a series of deportation raids mostly against women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who were ruled legally ineligible for legal US status – an operation viewed largely as an attempt to quell the rising migrant flow.

Border patrol agents say a strong incentive luring migrants to the US is the sense that many who have come since 2014 are still in the country, says Shawn Moran, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing agents.

“They come here in the hopes of being caught because they know they’ll be released into American society,” Mr. Moran says of Central Americans. “That’s what we’re hearing from the people we’re detaining.”

This is partly true. By law, the federal government must offer protection to unaccompanied minors who cross the border. They undergo medical screenings and mental health assessments. Most are turned over to family members already in the US as their legal cases move forward.

But the processing of families, mostly women and children, has evolved since 2014. When mothers and their children first began reaching the border in large numbers, many were released into the community. As the numbers soared, the government began to detain families longer and deport them faster, a strategy that has come under scrutiny in and out of court.

Still, “many families, particularly those who have expressed a fear of going home or a desire to apply for asylum, remain here,” says Faye Hipsman, associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The immigration court backlogs are so long that not a lot of these cases have been resolved yet.”

Knowing that a relative, friend, or neighbor has been allowed to stay in the US may strengthen migrants’ resolve to cross the border, Ms. Hipsman adds.

The most recent US budget aims to address the root causes for Central American immigration by tilting regional aid more toward economic development and away from security issues. The $750 million in aid also "establishes a series of strong conditions on what Central American governments have to demonstrate before funds are released to them," notes Adriana Beltrán in an analysis of the budget for the Washington Office on Latin America.

'No work, no help, nothing'

Maria Pascual Juan says she was well aware when she decided to leave Guatemala and sneak across the US-Mexico border that she risked being deported, but she chose to make a long, clandestine journey north anyway to try to improve her lot in life.

“There’s nothing for poor people in Guatemala,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “No work, no help, nothing.”

The 30-year-old woman and her 11-year-old daughter, Ana, managed to evade immigration authorities in Mexico and later slip under the US-Mexico border fence into Arizona. Border agents soon picked them up and, after a short time in detention, released them at a Tucson shelter run by a religious organization.

The possibility of living and working in this country, even on a short-term basis, was enough to pull Ms. Pascual Juan north. Employment in Guatemala has been scarce since a fungus ravaged the coffee crops that her family relied on for a living, she says.

“There is no other work,” she adds.

She and her husband, Julio Mateo, planned separate trips to the US a month apart, which gave them time to borrow enough money to cover smugglers’ fees for themselves and their two daughters. Each traveled with a child – she with their oldest and he with their toddler, Eulogia. 

Border agents detained father and daughter in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, where most border-crossers from countries other than Mexico are still coming – even as they disperse to other parts of Texas, Arizona, and California. Pascual Juan and her daughter landed in Arizona, and after a night, agents dropped off the pair at a shelter owned by Catholic Community Services. Volunteers there help house and feed the families before helping them make travel arrangements so they can join relatives living in other states.

After a couple of days at the Tucson shelter, Pascual Juan and her daughter boarded a bus to Nebraska, where the whole family reunited. Though relieved to have everyone together again, Pascual Juan worries that neither she, nor her husband, will be allowed to work here even temporarily.

The US government monitors her husband’s movements through an ankle bracelet – a Department of Homeland Security alternative to the detention of women and children. The family now awaits hearings before an immigration judge.

“I hope we are allowed to stay here so we can work for a while,” the mother says. “That’s what we want more than anything. That’s why we came here, to work.”

[Correction: This article has been updated to correct the amount of aid, $750 million, the US has budgeted for Central America.]

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