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From Control to Crisis: MPI Report Sketches Factors Behind U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis & Outlines Key Elements for New Strategy
Press Release
Friday, August 2, 2019

From Control to Crisis: MPI Report Sketches Factors Behind U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis & Outlines Key Elements for New Strategy

WASHINGTON – Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are likely to approach the 1 million mark this fiscal year, a remarkable turnaround for a U.S. border security environment that just two years ago had witnessed the lowest levels of illegal immigration since 1971.

What was a major, if often unrecognized, enforcement success story has been replaced by a migration and humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed border operations, strained an already overloaded immigration court system and resulted in unsafe, precarious conditions for migrants.

How did conditions at the border unravel? And what are the push factors in Central America and the pull factors in the United States that have led to rising migration flows now, when many of these factors were present earlier?

In From Control to Crisis: Changing Trends and Policies Reshaping U.S.-Mexico Border Enforcement, Migration Policy Institute (MPI) researchers draw on enforcement and other data from the United States, Mexico and Central America, as well as analysis of changing migration trends and policies to comprehensively tell this story.

An enforcement system designed for what was the main challenge at the border for decades—illegal immigration of Mexican adults—has not been repointed to address the rapidly changing flows of families and unaccompanied children from Central America, many seeking humanitarian protection, others wanting work or to reunite with relatives already in the United States. The change has been dramatic: In 2008, Mexicans comprised more than 90 percent of apprehensions. So far this fiscal year, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans represent 74 percent of apprehensions, with two-thirds composed of families or unaccompanied children.

“There is an urgent need to re-envision border enforcement given the characteristics of today’s mixed flows,” the MPI researchers write. “Migration from Central America, and indeed potentially from other parts of the hemisphere and regions of the world, constitute today’s major and longer-term challenge to U.S.-Mexico border security and border management.”

The sweeping range of actions the Trump administration has taken to date, from repeated efforts to narrow access to asylum, stationing of troops at the border, family separation, cutoff of aid to Central American countries and more do not represent the transformation necessary to achieve and assure lasting success at the border, the authors state. “While collectively this succession of punitive enforcement-oriented actions is unprecedented in scope, paradoxically it has made the situation at the border worse.”

The authors outline four critical elements that must be part of a smart, effective rethinking of border enforcement:

  • Timely, fair asylum processing. Rather than narrowing access to asylum, the first order for the U.S. government should be to invest in new strategies and resources that enable the asylum system to handle its escalating caseload more quickly and efficiently. Migrants are attracted by the prospect of years-long stays in the United States while asylum claims are pending and the low likelihood of being deported. More rapid asylum adjudication and return of those whose claims are denied would go a long way toward deterring future flows.
  • Supervised release pending asylum decisions. While keeping track of migrants in the asylum system is often expressed as a dilemma between detaining or releasing them, robust case-management systems offer a cost-effective and more humane alternative to detention. Pilot supervision programs have shown compliance rates of 99 percent, costing $38 per family per day, a fraction of the cost of detention ($319 per family member daily).
  • Reconfiguring U.S. Customs and Border Protection strategies and operations. A fundamentally new operational model must be developed to address today’s mixed flows. Just as deterrence through prevention in the 1990s and consequence delivery in the 2000s represented new enforcement regimes, the current crisis calls for expanding CBP reception facilities and capacity to handle the health and humanitarian needs of families and children, and for greater coordination with the multiple federal agencies responsible for handling asylum claims and detaining or sheltering migrants.
  • Regional cooperation in migration management and in tackling root causes of migration. Mexico and the United States have shared interests in managing migration within the region to be safe, legal and orderly as well as to reduce migration pressures from nearby countries. The June 7 U.S.-Mexico agreement includes important areas for heightened cooperation. But Mexico lacks the capacity and institutional readiness to sustain the levels of effort that the United States is demanding. The United States should support expansion of Mexico’s asylum system and development of work-oriented visa programs, alongside enforcement efforts that build bilateral and regional cooperation. Imposing safe third-country agreements, as the administration is doing with Guatemala, is destined to fail. Instead, the United States should work with Mexico and others to establish regional processing programs to adjudicate growing numbers of asylum cases from the region closer to their source and accept for refugee admission those with valid claims. It is also essential to U.S. interests to restore aid and foreign assistance programs that strengthen citizen security, combat violence, improve living standards and mitigate drought and climate change in Central America. Cutting these programs may exacerbate push factors driving long-term migration from the region.

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/changing-trends-policies-reshaping-us-mexico-border-enforcement.

And join us August 12 for the launch of our Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative, which aims to generate a big-picture, evidence-driven vision of the role immigration can and should play in America’s future.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.