This time last year, migrants from Central America, including thousands of unaccompanied minors, were streaming into the United States, creating a problem for border communities and Obama administration officials. With far fewer people reaching American soil this year, it is tempting to conclude that the crisis is ebbing.
That would be a mistake.
Thousands of desperate Central Americans fleeing violence, poverty and, in some cases, persecution, are continuing to embark on perilous journeys north. A growing share, though, are being turned back at Mexico’s southern border.
“The root causes of migration haven’t gone away,” said Maureen Meyer, an expert on migration trends who has analyzed recent data from immigration authorities in Mexico and the United States. “Things are certainly not getting any better.”
American immigration authorities along the southern border detained more than 70,400 non-Mexican migrants between October and April of this year, a majority of whom are from Central America. That represented a considerable decline from 162,700 detained during the same period 12 months earlier. Meanwhile, Mexican officials stopped nearly 93,000 Central American migrants between October and April of this year, far exceeding the 49,800 detained in the same period 12 months earlier.
As the White House scrambled to find solutions to the border crisis last year, officials urged Mexico to do more to protect its southern border. The Mexican government deployed more law enforcement officers along the border and made it harder for migrants to travel as stowaways aboard freight trains. That has meant that fewer Central Americans who have reason to seek asylum are getting a chance to make their case. During the first nine months of 2014, the Mexican government, which has a lengthy asylum application process, approved only 16 percent of claims filed by Central Americans.
The United States has invested heavily in security along the southwestern border over the past decade, in large part to stop unlawful immigration. The Border Patrol, which has more than 20,000 agents, doubled its manpower over the past decade. Its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, has seen its budget balloon from $5.9 billion in 2004 to more than $12 billion this year.
Yet American politicians have shown little interest in devoting resources to address the underlying reasons Central Americans continue to head north. They include gang violence, chronic poverty, high unemployment and weak government institutions. Last year, Obama administration officials studied closely where the most recent migrants were coming from in drawing up a plan to improve the region’s economies and curb violence.
The Obama administration asked Congress for $1 billion for the effort, arguing that the border crisis last year underscored the severity of problems in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the countries where most of the migrants come from.
Last week, congressional appropriators in the House of Representatives marking up the bill that allocates foreign aid set aside less than $300 million for Central America. The lion’s share of the financing was approved for security initiatives. That is extremely shortsighted.
The United States can afford to play a bigger, more constructive role in helping Central American nations. Letting the problems fester will inevitably mean that people seeking safety and a better life will keep heading north in large numbers, which will continue to drive up the cost of keeping them out.