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Increased Central American Migration to the United States May Prove an Enduring Phenomenon
Editor's note: This article was amended to correct the data on Mexico's FY 2015 apprehensions and to clarify that Figure 2 refers to apprehensions of Northern Triangle nationals. The values cited in the text have been amended to reflect this.
More than a year and a half after the 2014 surge in child and family migration from Central America to the U.S. border reached its peak, recent flows have increasingly shown the characteristics of an enduring phenomenon, with significant policy implications for the United States and the region.
While apprehensions of unaccompanied children and families from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras dropped in January after rising sharply in November and December 2015, this monthly decline may be an aberration. Evidence suggests the deeply rooted push and pull factors propelling these flows show no signs of relenting. During October 2015 – January 2016, which represent the first four months of fiscal year (FY) 2016, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 20,455 unaccompanied children (UACs) and 24,616 family units (the term used by the government to describe a parent, typically a mother, traveling with children), primarily from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. This quarterly total amounts to half the unaccompanied children (39,970) and family units (39,838) apprehended in all of FY 2015. If the current pace of apprehensions continues and tracks the patterns of recent years, projected yearly totals would be significantly higher than the record 69,000 children and 68,000 families who arrived at the border in FY 2014 and touched off a political crisis for the Obama administration amid the scramble to process and house the arrivals.
A Look at the Trends
During the 2014 surge, the flows rose sharply in spring and peaked in June, when the Border Patrol apprehended 10,631 minors and 16,357 family units. By fall, amid significant policy and enforcement responses by the U.S. and Mexican governments, the numbers began to decline and remained at lower levels for much of the first half of FY 2015.
The decline led many to believe the 2014 spike was a one-time phenomenon. The respite proved temporary, however (see Figure 1). Arrivals of both unaccompanied minors and families began to rise steadily again in spring 2015. From March to December 2015, Southwest border unaccompanied child apprehensions rose from 3,126 to 6,786 (a 117 percent increase), while family apprehensions rose 223 percent over the same period, from 2,782 to 8,974. In January, apprehensions of both groups dropped sharply, to 3,113 minors and 3,145 family units—a shift more pronounced than the typical winter drop. Whether anomaly or new trend will become evident in the coming months. In FY 2016 to date, 28 percent of apprehended unaccompanied children have been from El Salvador, 37 percent from Guatemala, 18 percent from Mexico, and 15 percent from Honduras.
Figure 1. U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Minors and Family Units at the Southwest Border, FY 2011-16*
*Data for FY 2016 are for the first quarter of the year.
Source: U.S. Border Patrol, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Minor Statistics,” various years, available online.
The overall decline following the 2014 peak was mainly attributed to a series of actions taken by the governments of the United States and Mexico to stem the Central American flows, which have composed almost three-fourths of all child and family apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2013. The United States launched a public information campaign to warn potential migrants about the dangers of the journey north and to deny smugglers’ claims that those who made it to the border would be given permission to enter and remain in the United States. The Obama administration also scaled up its capacity to detain arrivals by opening new facilities, and began to fast track their cases on the immigration court docket. More importantly, and partly due to U.S. pressure, Mexico through its Southern Border Plan (Programa Frontera Sur) significantly stepped up immigration enforcement along its border with Guatemala and along popular migrant routes in the interior. While apprehensions at the U.S. border fell, apprehensions in Mexico rose significantly, suggesting that outflows from Central America remained fairly stable throughout 2015; many migrants were apprehended by Mexican authorities before reaching the U.S. border. Indeed, though the combined apprehensions of Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan nationals by the United States and Mexico fell from 341,000 in FY 2014 to 301,000 in FY 2015, Mexico’s share of apprehensions increased from about 30 percent to 55 percent (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Total Apprehensions of Northern Triangle Nationals by the United States and Mexico, FY 2010-15
Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data in Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas and Victoria Rietig, Migrants Deported from the United States and Mexico to the Northern Triangle: A Statistical and Socioeconomic Profile (Washington, DC: MPI, 2015), available online; Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), “Boletín Mensual de Estadísticas Migratorias,” arranged by FY 2009-2015; U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), FY 2015 CBP Border Security Report (Washington, DC: CBP, 2015), available online.
Why Are the Flows Continuing?
Despite the fluctuations in flows, the complex set of push and pull factors driving Central American migration has changed very little since 2014. Violence perpetrated by criminal gangs continues to plague the Northern Triangle—which represent three of the five countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity in Central America, long a key driver of emigration, persist. Moreover, the United States is home to millions of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While many are unauthorized and lack legal pathways to bring the children they left behind to the United States, the desire to reunify remains strong. U.S. laws and policies provide for unique treatment of unaccompanied children and families apprehended at the border, allowing many to be released and remain in the country for long periods of time as they await the outcomes of immigration court hearings. A key pull factor during the 2014 surge, these policies remain largely unchanged, though not without challenge. In addition, sophisticated smuggling networks continue to operate and adapt. Indeed, migrants’ points of entry at the U.S. border have shifted since 2014, suggesting that smugglers have found new ways to circumvent Mexico’s increased southern border and interior immigration enforcement.
Some push factors have been exacerbated. El Salvador’s homicide rate, for example, increased sharply in 2015, to 104 murders per 100,000 population, the new highest rate worldwide. Honduras, which ranked first in 2014, has a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000. Central America is also experiencing the most severe drought in decades that has squeezed agricultural production and particularly hurt small farmers. More than 3.5 million people are food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance; and the drought’s impact has contributed to migration decisions for many poor families, according to a recent joint report by the World Food Program (WFP) and International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Beyond the Push Factors
In addition to Central American push factors, important pull factors within the United States continue to play a role in the flows. The vast majority of unaccompanied child and family migrants who arrived in recent years without authorization are still living in the United States. All unaccompanied Central American children and families who have established a credible fear of returning to their home countries are afforded a hearing in immigration court, where they can apply for asylum or other forms of immigration relief. The backlog of pending cases, however, had reached a record 474,025 as of January 2016, with the average case taking 667 days to complete. Asylum cases can take up to four years to be resolved in some jurisdictions.
As of January 2016, 60 percent (53,616) of immigration court cases initiated since FY 2014 involving unaccompanied minors and 69 percent (51,786) of cases involving mothers with children were still pending, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Immigration courts have granted immigration relief to 223 minors and 920 families, just 1 percent of each group. A further 30 percent of unaccompanied children (27,707) and 2 percent of families (1,569) have been granted informal relief (such as case closure or termination through exercise of prosecutorial discretion). Under U.S. law, unaccompanied children may also apply for asylum and have their cases adjudicated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In FYs 2014 and 2015 4,278 UACs were granted asylum by USCIS. Meanwhile, 18 percent of children (16,499) and 26 percent of families (19,483) have been issued removal orders by immigration judges, the vast majority in absentia; 1 percent of each group chose voluntary departure (1,198 children and 878 families). Despite the large number of removal orders issued, just 3,728 unaccompanied children were actually removed between October 2013 and August 22, 2015, according to a Politico analysis of unpublished government data, representing about one-quarter of orders issued in the same period.
Furthermore, family detention—an early deterrence and enforcement tool deployed by the Obama administration in response to the 2014 surge—has faced serious legal challenge, and its future is in doubt. Viewed as controversial by many, the practice was struck down in August 2015 by a federal judge in California. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that a 1997 settlement, Flores v. Reno—which sets standards for the release, detention, and treatment of unaccompanied children in federal immigration custody—also applies to children apprehended with a parent or guardian. Under the Flores settlement’s terms, children must be released from detention “without unnecessary delay” to a parent, relative, or other guardian in the United States; and children may only be housed in detention centers licensed by state child welfare agencies. The government appealed the Gee ruling to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September, and began releasing some families as per the court’s order, though not quickly enough for some advocates who expressed concern at the pace of releases. Citing a significant surge in arrivals, the administration in December urged the appellate court to expedite the case—a request the court granted. The outcome of the case will have significant policy implications; if upheld, the administration will be forced to change its detention as deterrence approach and may also impact future family migration flows.
After Judge Gee’s ruling, Pennsylvania declined to renew the license of the state’s 96-bed family detention facility, the Berks County Residential Center, which is set to expire February 21. Texas has taken steps to assure that the state’s two facilities—South Texas Family Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center, which together house up to 3,300 women and children—remain licensed and operational.
Other Developments in Play
A series of other developments in the United States and the region could potentially affect future flows.
First, on January 13, 2016, the Obama administration announced it would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to allow individuals facing persecution to apply for refugee status and resettlement from Central America. The initiative significantly widens the administration’s refugee policy response, which had been limited to an in-country refugee processing program established in December 2014 for certain minors in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala whose parents are already in the United States. Relatively few applicants have been processed and brought to the United States so far through these in-country programs. Under the new plan, refugee processing centers open to adults will be established in countries outside the Northern Triangle. UNHCR will administer the program, working with the United States and countries in the region. While key questions about its implementation are still to be decided, the program has the potential to provide access to protection and resettlement in safe destinations to Central Americans in need, with the hope of stemming treacherous, expensive journeys from Central America to the U.S. border.
Also in January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began a series of immigration enforcement operations to enforce removal orders against recently arrived Central American families who have exhausted their legal options in immigration court. In early January, 121 adults and children were apprehended in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. Despite the relatively small number of individuals detained, the actions were highly publicized and sparked a fierce backlash among Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocates. The administration argued that it was enforcing its deportation priorities and U.S. immigration law. The arrests, however, were complicated by the fact that more than two dozen of those apprehended were later granted temporary deportation deferrals by the immigration courts. There has been much speculation about a causal relationship between the enforcement actions and the decrease in apprehensions by Border Patrol in January. However, given the advance planning involved in migration from the region and the forces that drive it, it is unlikely that the enforcement operations alone could so quickly affect flows.
Additionally, Congress in December 2015 approved a $750 million development assistance package for Central America. While it includes funding for development, narcotics enforcement, governance programs, and military financing, a share will be dedicated to implementing the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle plan. The plan—jointly developed by the governments of the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—aims to prevent rising migration by attacking the root causes, such as poverty and gang violence. Furthermore, Congress has directed the administration to ensure the Northern Triangle countries take steps to inform their citizens about the dangers of the journey to the U.S. border, combat human smuggling, improve border security, and facilitate the safe return and reintegration of deportees. Reintegration measures will include offering opportunities such as access to jobs and education or training. While implementation is just beginning, the plan signals a more systemic approach to addressing the underlying drivers of Central American migration flows.
To address the immigration court backlogs, Congress also has approved increased funding for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) that will enable the appointment of 55 additional immigration judges. And USCIS plans to increase its Asylum Corps, which is tasked with processing and adjudicating tens of thousands of asylum claims each year, from 350 officers to almost 450. The changes have the potential to reduce delays in immigration hearings and adjudications of asylum applications.
Lastly, an entirely unexpected development is the emergence of Zika. The virus—spread by mosquitos and preliminarily linked to severe birth defects in babies born to women infected when pregnant—has now been reported in 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Northern Triangle. On February 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a public health emergency. The prevalence of gangs in the region has made it difficult for health workers to conduct outreach and disease eradication efforts in certain areas. Should the spread of Zika worsen, migration flows may increase.
With border apprehensions of minors and families likely again on the rise, many facets of the issue are sure to be hotly debated in the coming months. Should the flows remain elevated, this migration will certainly become a campaign issue this year. While overall apprehensions have reached a historic low, Republican candidates likely would revive their charge that the border is out of control. On the Democratic side, however, any increases in removals or detention by the Obama administration likely would be met with sharp criticism from immigrant communities and their advocates.
The treatment of unaccompanied children has become another subject of controversy. In February 2016, a six-month investigation revealed that amid the 2014 surge, some children were released into the care of sponsors who had criminal records or were involved in human trafficking. The investigation found that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), overwhelmed by the rising caseload in 2014, failed to conduct necessary background checks of adult sponsors, and did not provide adequate post-release services, such as home visits or check-ins. Though there may be deep disagreements among lawmakers from both political parties, immigrant advocates, and the administration over how best to stem future flows and provide humanitarian relief to those fleeing violence, there is consensus that unaccompanied children should be protected from harm. Thus, more intense scrutiny of sponsors and monitoring of unaccompanied children after their release by the government will certainly become a subject of statutory or agency policy changes.
Given the level of violence in the Northern Triangle, advocacy groups are also pressuring the Obama administration designate Guatemala for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and extend the designations for El Salvador and Honduras, which expire later this year. TPS grants work authorization and protection from deportation to certain nationals of designated countries that are deemed unsafe for repatriation due to ongoing armed conflict, a natural disaster, or other extraordinary circumstances. While the administration has thus far ruled out the move, increasing humanitarian flows and developments with the Zika virus may put the TPS option back on the table.
- U.S. Border Patrol total UAC apprehensions by month, FY 2010-15
- U.S. Border Patrol total family unit apprehensions by month, FY 2013-15
- Southwest Border UAC statistics FY 2016
- WFP/IOM report on links between food insecurity, violence, and migration in the Northern Triangle
- TRAC data on immigration court backlogs
National Policy Beat in Brief
Justice Scalia’s Death Raises Questions for Upcoming Immigration Case. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s February 13 death has left a sudden vacancy on the nine-seat high court, and touched off a significant political debate. Within hours of the death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issued a statement that the Senate should not confirm any nominee until after the 2016 election. President Obama has since announced that he intends to nominate Justice Scalia’s replacement in the near future. The possibility that the court may complete the remainder of its current term with only eight justices has potentially significant implications for many pending cases. Among them is United States v. Texas, in which 26 states have challenged executive actions announced by President Obama in November 2014 to protect up to 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Implementation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program and expansion of the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were enjoined by a federal district court in Texas, a decision affirmed by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. With an eight-justice high court, a majority decision requires a 5-3 vote; in the case of a 4-4 split, the lower court ruling stands but without setting precedent for future cases. The Supreme Court can also decide to rehear a particular case after the ninth justice is confirmed. Under the Constitution, Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
- CityLab article on impact of Justice Scalia’s death
Senate Rejects Syrian Refugee Bill. The U.S. Senate on January 20 failed to advance a bill that would have introduced stricter screening requirements and effectively halted admissions of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Under the bill, the heads of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Director of National Intelligence would have to provide pre-admission certification that each Syrian and Iraqi refugee had received an adequate background check and is not a threat to national security. The bill also would require the DHS Inspector General to review the certifications, and would mandate detailed monthly reports to Congress about the Syrian and Iraqi refugee application and certification process. Amid Democratic opposition, the measure failed a cloture vote by 55-43, short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives in November 2015 after terror attacks in Paris killed 130 people. The attacks were carried out by individuals associated with ISIS; while all identified attackers were European nationals, some had re-entered Europe posing as refugees.
- Roll Call article on Senate refugee bill vote
DHS Estimates Visa Overstayers. On January 19, DHS issued a report estimating that 483,000 foreigners who entered the United States lawfully by sea or air in 2015 remained in the country beyond their period of authorized stay. The report identified an overall in-country overstay rate of 1.07 percent, meaning that almost 99 percent of foreign travelers depart the country on time and pursuant to the terms of their visa. Additionally, according to the report, overstay rates vary widely by country, from 0 percent for several small countries such as Nauru and the Solomon Islands to 26.8 percent for Djibouti. The report represents the first government-issued overstay estimates since 1997.
- DHS overstay report
- Wall Street Journal article on the overstay estimates
State and Local Policy Beat in Brief
State Refugee Resettlement Lawsuits Get Different Receptions in Federal Courts. On February 8, a U.S. district judge in Dallas declined to grant a preliminary injunction sought by the state of Texas against the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state. Texas’s request was an amended motion for a preliminary injunction, initially filed in December and rejected by the same judge that month. The lawsuit argues that the Obama administration has failed to properly consult state officials about the placement of refugees, as required by the 1980 Refugee Act. On January 7, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government over the settlement of Syrian refugees, and Tennessee’s state Senate this week is considering a resolution requiring the attorney general to also sue the federal government. And on February 12, oral argument was held in a federal district court in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a local resettlement agency against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence had ordered state agencies not to assist the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Following the Paris terrorist attacks in November, more than two dozen governors said they would oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their state citing fears that the refugees might not have been adequately screened and could pose national security threats.
- Texas Tribune article on the Texas refugee lawsuit
- Reuters article on the Alabama lawsuit
- Southern Poverty Law Center article on Tennessee resolution
- Associated Press article on Indiana ACLU lawsuit
New Mexico Passes Fingerprint Bill for Unauthorized Immigrants Seeking Driver’s Licenses. New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez is expected to sign a bill approved by the New Mexico Legislature earlier this month that will require driver’s license applicants who cannot provide proof of lawful immigration status to submit their fingerprints, which will then be sent to the FBI to be checked against federal criminal databases. Those who already have a driver’s license will not be subject to the requirement. The measure was a compromise to improve the state’s compliance with the 2005 REAL ID Act, which places federal security requirements on state-issued identification cards while still allowing unauthorized immigrants to retain driving privileges. New Mexico has allowed unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses since 2003.
- Fox News Latino article on New Mexico’s fingerprint bill