Waves of migrants cross five or more borders and pay thousands of dollars for safe passage to their destination. Countries slam their borders shut, stranding thousands and roiling relations with neighbors. Growing numbers of women and children flee violence at home.
And the United Nations’ chief refugee organization concludes that a “looming crisis” is unfolding across a hemisphere.
Sound like just another assessment of Europe’s refugee crisis? It’s not.
All this describes what is taking place across South and Central America and up into Mexico as tens of thousands of Central Americans and Cubans – along with a sprinkling of others from as far away as China and India – take to the Americas’ well-worn migratory paths in hopes of reaching the United States.
The numbers do not match those of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe this year, but they are staggering nonetheless and have taken US border authorities by surprise.
The surge in what the Border Patrol calls “other than Mexicans,” or OTMs, crossing the border has not generated the kind of emotional debate that Europe’s refugee crisis has – or that a spike in Central American children crossing the border in summer 2014 did. But some immigration experts predict that this will change as the figures become known.
More than 45,000 Cubans are projected to migrate to the US this year, with more than 27,000 having crossed the US-Mexico border between January and October. The figures already make 2015 the biggest year for Cuban migration to the US in decades.
At the same time, migration from Central America is also rising, with regional migration experts predicting that at least 300,000 mostly Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans will have attempted the trek by the end of the year.
In October alone, nearly 5,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America were caught illegally crossing the southern US border – about double the number of October 2014. The same month, more than 6,000 family members crossed the border together – triple the number of a year ago.
The exodus has led to scenes and practices that are more readily associated with Europe after a year of acute attention to Syrian refugees.
More than 5,000 US-bound Cubans currently find themselves stranded in Costa Rica after Nicaragua closed its border to Cuban migrants last month. Also, as in Europe, more migrants using land migratory corridors are putting themselves in the hands of smuggling networks, paying up to $10,000 for passage from, say, Ecuador to Texas.
Indeed, at least until recently, Ecuador served as Cubans’ equivalent of a Greek island for Syrian refugees – the first stop in a long, multi-country journey to the US. That’s because Ecuador did not require Cubans to attain a visa to visit. Last month, Ecuador did an about-face and started requiring visas for Cubans, sparking spontaneous street protests in Havana.
Why the surge?
The similarities with Europe are real, regional and immigration experts say – although they often strongly disagree on what explains the surge on this side of the Atlantic.
“There are parallels between what’s happening here and what’s happening in Europe, and there are probably lots of differences, but the key thing motivating people here and in Europe is the very same – and that is the accurate assessment that these illegal immigrants will be allowed in once they reach their destination, and allowed to stay,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
Although the US government’s “messaging” to Central Americans has been that they won’t be allowed in and will be sent home, the reality has been very different, Mr. Krikorian says.
“Thousands of Central Americans are reaching the border every month, and in most cases, they are given a date to appear in [immigration] court and are sent on their way to Dallas or New York or wherever,” he says. “The US can have all the TV and radio announcements they want down there saying people reaching the border will be sent back,” he adds. “But when the guy who makes it to his destination calls home and says, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not really like that,’ who are they going to believe?”
But others say it’s the conditions at home that are causing people to undertake a long journey to live elsewhere.
“El Salvador has seen this year a really worrying increase in violence and specifically in homicides to numbers that are now higher than during the civil war,” says Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all figure in the top 10 of the world’s most violent countries. Rampant gang violence and a desire to flee it are prompting the waves of unaccompanied minors reaching the US border.
But the situation of the thousands of Cubans crossing the US-Mexico border is different because of the US “dry foot” policy, which promises automatic residency to any Cuban who manages to reach American soil. That decades-old policy remains the same even though the US and Cuba have reestablished diplomatic relations and Cuba has loosened its restrictions on Cubans traveling from the island.
“These changes have prompted Cubans to trade their rafts for airline tickets to get to the United States,” Krikorian says. “If more Cubans are now choosing to come here by land, there’s a good reason,” he adds. “There are no sharks.”
Off the US radar screen
Despite the rising migration tide and what the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees calls a “looming refugee crisis in the Americas,” the issue has largely remained off the US radar screen, some experts say.
“We have a migration crisis in the hemisphere that piles up at the US southern border, with more or less 200,000 people crossing the border a year, and basically nothing much is done about it,” says Manuel Orozco, program director for migration, remittances, and development at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Several key reasons explain why the migration “crisis” has yet to register with Americans – aside from perhaps the attention that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has put on immigration.
For one thing, the rise in Central Americans and Cubans crossing the US-Mexico border has occurred as the number of Mexicans apprehended at the border has fallen off sharply – adding up to modest apprehension numbers.
At the same time, Mexican authorities (with US financial assistance) have beefed up migrant interdiction efforts along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala – stopping and turning back tens of thousands of Central Americans who otherwise might have made it to the US. Mexico’s detentions of Central Americans over the year ending in June were up 73 percent over the previous year, to about 157,000. Deportations over the same period were up 64 percent, to 138,000.
As for the Cubans, their special immigrant status and immediate receipt of residency under the dry-foot policy mean that even tens of thousands of Cubans can enter the country with little fanfare – and be quickly absorbed into American society.
But most migration experts say nothing suggests the pressures on the southern US border will dissipate soon, and they say measures should be taken to avoid a depending crisis – even if they don’t agree on what those measures should be.
“This is a huge issue that has been neglected far too long, and we’re seeing the results of that neglect now,” says Ms. Meyer of WOLA.
One priority she advocates is for the US and the rest of the hemisphere to recognize that violent conditions, particularly in northern Central America, mean the Americas have a refugee crisis and not just a rise in economic migrants.
“As a region, we need to start addressing the flow of people as more of a mix of migrants and political refugees,” she says. She notes that Mexico’s refugee agency has only 15 agents nationwide to evaluate tens of thousands of Central Americans for protection as legitimate refugees. US aid to Mexico should be “rebalanced,” Meyer says, to enhance Mexico’s screening capabilities.
On the contrary, Krikorian says the US needs to be unequivocal about the “reality” that almost all the people crossing the border are “economic migrants,” including the Cubans. “Here, as in Europe, the response needs to be clear and direct, and aimed at changing the perception that people will be allowed to stay,” he says.
Where experts seem to agree is that addressing the region’s migration crisis will require US leadership – but they see little prospect of that happening anytime soon.
Mr. Orozco of the Dialogue says the sight of countries squabbling over the Cubans who have been stranded on their way to the US, not to mention Central American countries trying to deal with violence and weak economies that are causing people to leave, leads him to one conclusion.
“The US needs to take the lead in efforts to do something about this crisis,” he says. “But we haven’t seen much of that so far.”