Is There Time for One More Migrant Crisis in 2020? Data on Unaccompanied Minor Arrivals Suggest Yes

Two weeks ago, a new migrant caravan departed Honduras for the U.S., setting off panic in the Guatemalan and Mexican governments, and triggering both countries to implement forceful anti-migrant measures. This caravan’s departure has not made major news in the U.S., but it is entirely predictable—my study of Central American minor migrants shows that the flow of Central American migrants is cyclical. While changes in policy and open threats against migrants can effect temporary decreases in the number of Central Americans headed for the U.S., the forces driving such migration are unaffected by these measures; the only lasting effect of anti-migrant policies like those currently being implemented in Mexico and Guatemala, at the behest of the U.S., is to increase human suffering.

The Cycle

A visualization of Border Patrol data on unaccompanied minors detained along the southwest border since 2013 shows a constant fluctuation in unaccompanied minor arrivals in the U.S. 

In mid-2014, for example, a spike in arrivals was followed by an abrupt drop.  That period was the so-called “child migration crisis,” which made the news around the world. That crisis triggered the U.S to pressure Mexico into increasing the presence of immigration officials in Southern Mexico, with the goal of detaining Central American migrants well-before they reach the U.S. The two countries eventually formalized this agreement as the Southern Border Plan, and unaccompanied minor arrivals nose-dived over a relatively short period. However, by the end of 2015, the numbers began to rise again, despite the Southern Border Plan. My fieldwork revealed that migrants and smugglers alike found new routes to avoid checkpoints in Southern Mexico. But, in doing so, migrants’ journeys got longer, riskier, and more expensive. Moving through Mexico was getting more dangerous, and the U.S. border was being pushed further south. 

At the end of 2016, around the election of Donald Trump, there was another sudden drop in unaccompanied minor arrivals. This time, Trump’s anti-immigrant comments generated uncertainty among migrants about the safety of crossing the border. This period also marked the beginning of mass-detention and deportation of Central Americans throughout Mexico, not just along the Southern border. This forced migrants further into the shadows, putting them at further risk of being preyed upon by criminal groups. 

The Trump-factor didn’t last long. By May 2019, the number of unaccompanied minors detained at the Southern border reached a historic high. And then, again, the numbers fell off. This time a significant change in Mexico regarding migration enforcement was afoot. The Mexican Guardia Nacional (the National Guard), newly formed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in June 2019, began to persecute Central American migrants. The Guardia National began patrolling new cities and towns where Central American migrants had typically moved relatively safely over the last few years. In response, youth began migrating more slowly, taking their time to move north and to carefully plan their route in order to avoid detention and deportation. 

Over the course of 2020, Mexican officials have continued to implement anti-migrant measures, and the COVID-19 pandemic largely halted migration. The results of these combined factors have been astonishing; in April 2020, just 965 minors were detained at the southern border, a 90% decrease from April 2019. 

Based on the data, we know what follows. Border detentions have slowly started to increase again, an indication that Central American migrants are undeterred. And, if the post- 2016 election migrant boom is any indication, this year’s record lows may reach similar highs. 

The Takeaway

So what do these numbers really mean? They mean that the U.S.’ attempts to block minor migrants and Central American migrants generally fail to change the contexts that trigger migration in the first place. Enforcement, deportation, forcing migrants to risk their lives, a global pandemic—none of these deterrents change the violence, poverty, and desires that motivate Central Americans to leave their homes. Each data point represented in the graph above is a minor, a young person, a human, who, for some reason, is trying to reach the U.S. Whether or not the U.S. views that reason as “justified” is irrelevant—migrants find a way. Based on historic trends, migrants will find a way in historic numbers over the next few years.

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