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9/14: The Child Migrant Crisis Seems to be Over. What Happened? (1)
Released 20 November 2014  By Dara Lind - Vox

The Child Migrant Crisis Seems to be Over. What Happened?

Dara Lind
September 19, 2014

Quite simply, the surge of child migrants has stopped. As of August 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border had fallen back below the previous year's levels.

Earlier this summer Washington was in a panic about the "border crisis" the arrival of tens of thousands of families and children from Central America crossing over the Texas border.

But by the time Congress returned in September, the crisis had completely dropped off the radar of policymakers, the media, and the public. So what happened?

Quite simply, the surge of child migrants has stopped. As of August 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border had fallen back below the previous year's levels. (Apprehensions are a good metric here, because most of these children and families are actively seeking out Border Patrol agents once they reached the United States rather than trying to cross undetected.)

Is this decline real? Back in May, when apprehensions first started to drop, many analysts pointed out that children are typically less likely to travel through Mexico into the US during the heat of summer. That suggested the numbers might pick up again in the fall.

But the fact that, as of August, fewer children are arriving this year than arrived at the same time last year indicates that this isn't just a seasonal slowdown. It really looks like the flow of children into the country has slowed down to nearly manageable levels for the time being.

Indeed, the US government is no longer overwhelmed by the flow. Border Patrol officers are legally required to turn unaccompanied children over to the Department of Health and Human Services no more than 72 hours after they're apprehended. At the worst parts of the crisis this summer, they weren't even close to meeting that deadline they took an average of more than three weeks. Now, according to Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, they're back to normal, turning kids over to HHS well within the 72-hour window.

At a speech in September, Deputy Secretary Mayorkas refused to say that the crisis was over. But it seems fair to say it's at least in remission.

Why are fewer Central Americans making it to the US border?
Other than the weather (which, as mentioned, doesn't look like a major factor), here are some things that could have driven the decline in migrants.

1) The Mexican government is apprehending migrants en route. One major factor for the slowdown is that the Mexican government has taken a much more aggressive attitude toward apprehending kids who are on their way to the US from Central America.

When asked by a reporter on September 19th to talk about the decline in child migrants, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske went out of his way to praise the Mexican government's work to interdict children en route. Mexico has been aggressive in apprehending kids riding "la Bestia," the freight train that many children ride through much of Mexico. (In the long term, there's a plan in the works to speed up "la Bestia" so that it's too fast for migrants to hop onto.) Furthermore, Mexico has set up immigration checkpoints in towns closer to the border the mirror image of the internal checkpoints in the southwestern US.

Anecdotal reports from NGOs in Central America indicate that Mexico's efforts are reducing the number of migrants. One advocate in the United States said that he's heard reports that "what used to be 2 buses a day of kids coming back from Mexico (to one Central American NGO) are now 8 buses a day."

2) US law-enforcement efforts to pursue smuggling networks. The federal government's law-enforcement arm kicked into high gear over the summer to go after criminal organizations that have been smuggling migrants to the US-Mexico border. Deputy Secretary Mayorkas said in September that this investigative work was a key cause of the decline. This month there's been at least one extremely high-profile federal bust of Los Angeles fashion businesses for money laundering and ties to trafficking organizations.

But there are two separate possibilities about why criminal investigations might have helped drive the decline. One is that smugglers have simply been kneecapped by American policing. The other is that the police operations served a deterrent effect: Once smuggling organizations realized that the American government was trying harder to track them down and arrest them, they decided to ramp down their own smuggling operations rather than take the risk.

Are Central Americans being deterred from making the journey in the first place? And why?
This is where it gets extremely tricky to figure out how important various factors are, because we're looking at the question of what Central Americans themselves hear about the trip to the US and how they make their decisions.

The question of why so many migrants were coming in the first place was central to the political debate this summer. Republicans claimed that would-be migrants were lured by the Obama administration's efforts to protect unauthorized immigrants living in the US from deportation. The Obama administration, for its part, blamed smugglers for spreading false rumors, not the government's own policy.

Asylum advocates and lawyers, meanwhile, had a third explanation. Yes, they said, children and families were coming because they thought they'd be allowed to stay but they were correct. That's because the separate process for dealing with child migrants meant that most of them would be in the US for over a year while the government decided whether they could stay. Furthermore, since many of them were fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, they'd be eligible for asylum or another form of permanent protection.

Has this changed? It's possible that a few different factors are now deterring migrants from Central America from even attempting to make the journey in the first place:

1) The harsh treatment of Central American children and families in the US. In June the federal government began cracking down on children and families who'd arrived in the United States. It instituted mandatory detention for families, and sped up the process for evaluating whether children and families could stay in the US with the explicit aim of deporting most of them as quickly as possible.

The reasoning behind this, officials said at the time, was to deter children and families still in Central America from coming to the US in future. If they saw or heard that children and families weren't actually being allowed to stay in the US, they wouldn't be as susceptible to rumors and lies.

It's hard to tell how much this has affected the decline. The flow of children started to slow in early July; given how long it takes to get through Mexico to the US, those children would have started the journey weeks before the federal government's crackdown.

But migration experts believe that migrants generally hear about things like this from their peers very quickly, and that this does drive their decision-making. If the slower process for dealing with child migrants really did incentivize more children to come, it makes sense that trying to speed up that process would have gotten rid of that incentive.


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