The Trump administration on Wednesday announced that a record number of people had been apprehended at the southern border in April, topping 100,000 for the second month in a row and reigniting the administration's calls to toughen the nation's response to border crossings, even though its hawkish efforts have done little to stem the flow.
New figures released by Customs and Border Protection showed 109,144 people apprehended along the southern border in April, the highest monthly figure since 2007, though still well below the peak of 1.6 million encountered in 2000. The number includes asylum-seekers who present themselves at official border crossings to ask for refuge.
Officials said the number of families showing up at the border to request asylum has overwhelmed facilities, which were built to house single adults from Mexico, not parents with kids. Border Patrol agents detained more than 58,474 immigrant families along the US–Mexico border in April, the highest monthly number since CBP started tracking the figure in 2012.
US officials have said that, because of the lack of space in processing centers and the limited number of Border Patrol agents, more than 33,000 families with no criminal history have been released.
In order to deal with the influx, immigration officials have erected two new tent camps in El Paso and Donna, Texas, to house thousands of immigrants arrested at the border. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said Wednesday that shifting additional resources or building more facilities to detain families will not be enough.
“It's like holding a bucket under a faucet; it doesn't matter how many buckets you give me if we can't turn off the flow,” Provost told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The surge at the border is being fueled by rampant poverty, violence, corruption, and climate change — all reasons cited by people as they make the perilous journey, usually from Central America, to the US. But the Trump administration's hardline policies and rhetoric, which have turned immigration into one of its biggest battlefields, have also played a role in encouraging more people to migrate now.
Though experts cautioned against calling the administration’s policies toward asylum-seekers the biggest factor in the migration surge, violence and corruption in Central America, as well as smugglers capitalizing on fears, have convinced many already in precarious circumstances that now is the time to go.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said the administration's quick-fix policies rather than a consistent approach to the asylum system have likely made the situation at the border worse.
The administration has separated families, forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases proceed in the US, and barred people from asking for refuge if they crossed between ports of entry, among others. Most of the policies enacted have been blocked by US courts.
"Implementing every one of those policies and stopping teaches people where the weaknesses in the systems are, and smugglers exploit the situation," Selee told BuzzFeed News. "But the administration's actions are only part of the story. People would not leave if they didn't have a good reason, if there wasn't already a push factor."
The vast majority of families are coming from the so-called Northern Triangle countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The US State Department recently said it was cutting aid to the three countries after President Donald Trump accused their leaders of not doing enough to stop migration flows. But critics say that will only make matters worse.
Trump has also blamed Mexico for not doing enough to stop immigrants from reaching the US, at one point threatening to close the southern border if Mexico didn't stop "ALL illegal immigration."
On the campaign trail, Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised a more humane approach toward immigrants and said he would not “do the dirty work of foreign governments” in stopping Central American migrants. In January his administration gave humanitarian visas, which allow migrants to live and work in Mexico, to more than 13,000 Central Americans who arrived in the southern state of Chiapas.
Weeks later, under pressure from the US, Mexico stopped issuing the visas to large groups of people. The new administration has since shown signs of continuing to detain and deport immigrants much like its predecessors.
Mexico's immigration-enforcement agency apprehended at least 43,475 people from the start of the year to April 22, a 1% decrease from the 44,062 apprehensions during the same period in 2018 under the previous administration. In April, Mexican authorities carried out raids on two caravans in Chiapas, resulting in the detention of 250 and 371 people.
Endemic violence and crime continue to be a driving force for Central Americans leaving their homes. According to a report from Doctors Without Borders, the violence experienced in the region was not unlike that seen by people living through war.
“Citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences,” the report said. “Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and control.”
Honduras had a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people in 2017, while Guatemala saw 22.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to Insight Crime, among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. By comparison, a study of crime and murder in 30 of the largest US cities found that in 2017, Baltimore had a homicide rate of 55.8 per 100,000 people.
Climate change has also played a growing role in driving migration from Central America. The United Nations said last year that lower-than-average rainfall and drier conditions have resulted in significant crop losses in the Northern Triangle, leaving farmers and families with not enough food to eat or sell.
In August, Honduras declared an emergency in the Dry Corridor, a tropical dry forest strip vulnerable to climate change that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama, where it's estimated that 82% of maize and bean crops were lost.
Edwin Castellanos, dean of the Research Institute at Guatemala's Valle University and an expert on climate change in Central America, said a warming climate has exacerbated poverty in the region. A recent report that Castellanos coauthored found that subsistence farmers, who harvest mostly to feed themselves, and indigenous people are the most affected by unpredictable rainfall and rising temperatures.
“Climate change models indicate that rain will continue to decrease, so we can expect the situation to only get worse,” Castellanos told BuzzFeed News. “If we don't implement risk systems and save water for farmers, there will be more instability and they will have more reasons to migrate.”
The plight of families living in these conditions was highlighted after the death of 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez, who died in US custody after crossing the border without his parents. The teen’s mother told CNN that Gutiérrez, who was living on one meal a day because of failed harvests, hoped to help his siblings suffering from hunger and drought.
Large groups of people making the journey from Central America, known as caravans, have forced smugglers to be more creative and aggressive, Selee of the Migration Policy Institute said. Central Americans following news coverage of the caravans have viewed the groups as a safer way to make the journey north without having to pay thousands of dollars to a smuggler.
In response, smugglers have begun to offer bus rides transporting people from their home countries to the US–Mexico border in days. Acutely aware of US immigration law, smugglers have also told would-be migrants that the Trump administration won't be able to detain them for long if they cross the border with a child, Selee said.
"Smugglers pitch people on the information they have: 'Hey, why don't you bring your kids? I'll charge you two for one because as you know, they can't hold families,'" Selee said. "People know some of the information, and they might not act on it absent smuggling, but it gives smugglers ammunition."
Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, said smugglers are charging families with children less than individuals attempting to get into the US undetected.
"If you're a single adult, you have a whole extra leg on the end from, say, the border to Houston," Leutert told BuzzFeed News. "Which you don't have if you have a kid."
A man who works as a transportation assistant for smugglers recently told Leutert that a trip with a child costs $5,000 for a family of three. But an adult who wants to cross the border without being apprehended can pay $7,000 to $9,000 just for themselves.
The sales pitch from smugglers, combined with Trump's statements and policies, has helped drive the migration surge, Leutert said.
"But to say, 'Hey, look, this is all because of Trump' is a stretch," Leutert said.
The immigration-court backlog in the US has soared to more than 800,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, with average times extending nearly two years.
Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, said smugglers are telling people in Central America that the time to leave is now, before the Trump administration tries again to make it more difficult to get into the US.
"If we were still with Obama and nobody was threatening that the migrant apocalypse was about to come ... smugglers couldn't use that as a sales pitch," Isacson told BuzzFeed News. "It's very easy if you're trying to get the sale to say, 'Go now before the next crackdown.'"
Smugglers also use shorter detention times — a maximum of 20 days for families — as part of their pitch, but it's still a mixed bag. As in any market, you get what you pay for, Isacson said. A cheap smuggler greatly increases your chances of being abandoned in the desert or being delivered to kidnappers.
"But if you're paying [for] the 'deluxe' or 'gold' package, which a lot of these folks are, they make it all the way," Isacson said. "I'm sure it's still not the most comfortable trek for these families. Some of the ones who pay less are still packed into the back of a cargo truck, which sounds absolutely miserable."
The last 30 years of immigration flows have created a lot of transnational families, relatives who live in different states across the United States but maintain ties, said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the Los Angeles–based National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
It's human nature to want to be with your loved ones, Alvarado said. And many of these families are choosing to follow relatives in the United States as opposed to fleeing to other parts of Latin America, where they have limited family networks and fewer job prospects.
"I don't know any family who has told me that El Salvador is the best place for them to reunite and to have a future," Alvarado told BuzzFeed News. "People are going to go where they feel safe, where they can raise a family in a safe environment, where they feel their kids will not be attacked or recruited for criminal activity."
Separating kids from their parents under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy didn't work as a deterrence, Alvarado said, suggesting that the threats people are facing in Central America are much bigger than the risk of being separated.
"If they feel that staying is more dangerous than leaving, then they're going to leave," Alvarado said. "If they feel the traveling is safer than staying in their neighborhood, parents will make that choice, not for themselves but for their children."
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has tried to make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to receive asylum, a reason some women traveling with children say they’re fleeing their countries. A report from 2014 found that in Honduras, domestic violence was among the most commonly reported crimes nationwide but rarely resulted in a conviction.
The Migration Policy Institute found that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras had some of the highest rates of gender-motivated killings of women in the world. Less than 3% of these murders were resolved by the courts.
Despite the Trump administration's efforts, a federal judge struck down the policy blocking asylum-seekers who experienced domestic abuse from passing a credible-fear finding from immigration officers, a crucial first step in the asylum process.
"When you have no justice, what do you expect people are going to do? They're going to leave,” Alvarado said. “All of those things weigh more than a Trump message of deterrence."
Baltimore had a homicide rate of 55.8 per 100,000 people in 2017. An earlier version of this post referred to an estimate for 2018.