Written by Miriam Jordan
President Donald Trump has tried to halt the arrival of unauthorized migrants by beefing up border security, limiting who qualifies for asylum and, for a while, separating migrant children from their parents at the border. However, figures released Tuesday suggest that those measures are failing to deter tens of thousands of migrants from journeying over land to the United States.
Indeed, after shriveling to the smallest number in five decades, arrests of migrants at the southern border — the best indicator of how many people are illegally entering the United States — are soaring again.
Border authorities detained nearly twice as many migrants — 268,044 — in the first five months of the fiscal year that started in October than were arrested in the same period the previous year.
To understand what’s happening, it’s important to look at who is coming, what is driving them and how the answers to those questions have changed over the years.
It used to be about Mexico. But no more.
In the past, unauthorized immigrants were overwhelmingly single men from Mexico who slipped into the country undetected to find work and send money home. But immigration from Mexico has plummeted in recent years. In fact, more Mexicans are leaving than arriving in the United States. Mexicans are less compelled to come because there are more opportunities in their own country and they have smaller families to support.
Central American families have become the new face of unauthorized immigration.
In the first five months of the fiscal year that began in October, the Border Patrol apprehended 136,150 people traveling in families with children, compared with 107,212 during all of fiscal 2018.
A trend toward family migration from Central America that began when Barack Obama was president has endured after temporarily dipping during Trump’s first year in office.
Poverty is driving much of the latest migration.
Many Central Americans live in fear. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have among the world’s highest homicide rates. Arriving migrants report that they have faced extortion and want to prevent their children from being recruited by street gangs.
But homicide rates in the Northern Triangle countries have been declining in recent years, and economic imperatives are believed to be the most important factor for the majority of recent arrivals.
More than 90 percent of the most recent migrants are from Guatemala, according to the newly released data. The majority hail from impoverished regions, including the Western highlands, where conflicts over land rights, environmental changes and depressed prices for crops like maize and coffee are undermining the ability of farmers to make a living.
Traveling with children is helping migrants avoid detention.
Migrants generally lack understanding of U.S. immigration law. But they appear to be informed about the basics.
The majority know to request asylum at the border, either at an official port of entry or when they surrender to border agents shortly after sneaking into the country from Mexico.
They know that they are unlikely to remain detained if they travel with a child and that they have a better shot at fending off deportation when they come with a child.
By law, the government cannot keep migrant families in holding facilities at the border for more than 72 hours. It must either transfer them to an immigration detention facility suitable for children or release them.
The government has been letting thousands of detained migrants go free each week because it lacks enough beds to hold them in family detention facilities. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s three residential family centers — two in southern Texas and one in Pennsylvania — can accommodate 3,326 parents and children.
The largest share of migrants arrive in Texas, but there appears to be a growing number who are entering through remote areas of Arizona and New Mexico.
Zero tolerance didn’t work.
In the spring of 2018, the Trump administration tried to discourage parents from traveling with a child by prosecuting everyone who crossed the border illegally, even those who were traveling with children — a policy known as zero tolerance. This resulted in children’s being removed from their parents and placed in shelters across the country.
The policy drew widespread condemnation, prompting the president to halt the practice in late June. But Customs and Border Protection officials believe that the various legal rulings preventing families from being detained have helped solidify the message to smugglers, who roam villages offering to guide people to the United States, that adults who come with a child are protected from deportation.
It’s not that easy to get asylum, though.
Whether they sneak into the country in remote areas or enter the country through a port of entry, most migrants are trying to petition for asylum.
In 2008, just under 5,000 applicants claimed they had a credible fear of persecution, the first legal step toward obtaining asylum, to avoid being returned to their homeland. Last year, nearly 100,000 claimed a credible fear.
The Trump administration contends that people are flooding the asylum system with invalid claims.
In recent years, immigration judges have granted less than 20 percent of asylum requests, a proportion that is even lower for Central Americans.
Many asylum-seekers from Central America claim they have been victims of gangs, which is harder to prove than political and other types of persecution. Poverty is not among the grounds for receiving asylum.
If they are denied, asylum-seekers can be deported. But since many are released while their case is pending, some never return to court and evade deportation.