Donald Trump is getting increasingly agitated about the growing number of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. The latest sign: the resignation of Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirtsjen Nielsen over the weekend.
In the past few days, the president and his border-security officials have been stepping up their cries of alarm over the state of affairs at the border, where US agents are struggling to process and detain thousands of immigrants.
“We can’t take you anymore. Whether it’s asylum or anything you want—illegal immigration—we can’t take you anymore,” Trump said last week. The deputy head of US Customs and Border Protection called the situation an “unprecedented crisis.” Before stepping down, Nielsen, complained DHS simply doesn’t have the resources (pdf) to deal with migrant arrivals.
The situation is not unprecedented, nor was it hard to prepare for. For years, the profile of immigrants to the US has been changing, from mostly Mexican men looking for jobs to Central American families and children fleeing violence and poverty. Yet, in all that time, the US government has done little to reconfigure its border apparatus to handle these very different migrants, many of whom want asylum, not work.
Its focus has remained on blocking the border, when what is needed is to quickly process the cases of asylum seekers the US is obligated by law to consider. The result: a massive border jam.
The Trump administration has doubled down on the kind of policies that do little to ease the bottleneck. In fact, in some ways it’s made the situation worse. Here’s how:
Trump’s actions and rhetoric are among the tangle of factors driving Central Americans to the US. The impetus to leave home is largely driven by gang violence, poverty, government repression, and even climate change. Those reasons likely carry more weight in most immigrants’ calculations than anything the president is saying or doing. In fact, the number of Central American immigrants entering the US illegally began swelling well before Trump took office.
Still, the Trump effect is not negligible. Take immigrant caravans, which started out years ago as protests against the dangers migrants faced crossing through Mexico, not as a way to emigrate north. Some of them didn’t even make it to the US border (paywall).
Trump’s Twitter rants put an international spotlight on the them—giving organizers considerably more attention than they’d ever received. Widespread coverage increased awareness among potential migrants, likely convincing some to join the caravans rather than go it alone.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening for more than two decades and in much bigger dimensions. The difference is that, by coming together and publicly demanding respect for human rights, they are more visible,” writes in Mexican magazine Letras Libres (link in Spanish) Jorge Schiavon, who runs the migratory studies program at Mexico’s CIDE, a prominent research institute.
The Trumpian publicity also inspired humanitarian groups and individuals to help, whether by providing food, clothes, or legal help. While in 2017, the arrival of migrants to a shelter run by priest Alberto Ruiz in the Mexican state of Jalisco went “unnoticed”, in 2018 it received “overflowing solidarity” due to the attention generated by Trump’s tweets. Neighbors opened up their bathrooms and made food “multiply,” he told Iliana Martínez Hernández Mejía (Spanish,) a researcher at ITESO, a university in Guadalajara. The extra help they’re getting along the way is another incentive for migrants to travel as part of a caravan.
For years, many migrants have relied on smugglers, known as coyotes, to make their way north. For a fee, they make travel arrangements through Mexico and into the US. Trump’s anti-immigration tirades had an impact on that market. His threats of sealing off the border and ramping up enforcement inflated smugglers’ fees, at least initially.
The caravans essentially made those logistics services free. One of the caravans even created its own self-government from scratch, as Politico reported. It plotted the group’s route and even negotiated on the group’s behalf with Mexican authorities. And traveling in big numbers has made the notoriously dangerous trip much safer.
The caravans have also made immigration accessible to a much broader group of people, who were priced out of the coyote market, says Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. “All of a sudden, they can go,” she says.
The change has been dramatic at the border, where immigrants are arriving in much larger groups than in the past. “In a normal year, DHS would encounter one or two groups of over 100 migrants. Already in this fiscal year, we have encountered nearly 100 large groups comprised of 100+ migrants, nearly half of which have arrived in remote locations,” wrote a frustrated Nielsen in a letter to Congress late last month.
The larger groups are considerably more taxing on the immigration system than a steady trickle of arrivals, because they overwhelm the Border Patrol’s resources and clog up the system.
Of course, no amount of publicity would convince anyone to join caravans if they weren’t successful. Their members have been making it into the US. Under American and international laws, immigrants in the US have a right to request asylum, even if they came in illegally. While many of the asylum seekers entering the US have legitimate claims, others don’t—but they’re still allowed to stay because the system is too clogged to identify those who don’t have a case and send them back.
The US’s immigration system is so backlogged that resolving an asylum case can take years. Since DHS doesn’t have the space or resources to detain asylum seekers during that process, it’s been releasing them. (The government is also barred from holding children for longer than a few weeks.)
The more immigrants are released, the more the incentive to come to the US grows in their home countries. The northward trek of those who join them is closely followed via the news and social media. As one Honduran put it to Quartz: “I hear of nothing else other than the caravans. ‘Let’s go boy, you’re losing your youth,’ they say.”
This is a problem that predates Trump, but he’s made little progress in fixing it. Like his predecessors, he’s spent most of his time and resources on border security, and significantly less on the asylum system. Here’s a comparison between the number of US Border Patrol positions vs. those at the department that deals with asylum, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump has hired more immigration judges, who rule on asylum cases. Those increases have been far outpaced by the number of new cases. Here’s how immigration court staffing has evolved, based on data gathered by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank:
So far, the Trumpian strategy hasn’t worked, based on the growing number of families and children the US Border Patrol are encountering on the American side of the border.
Trump’s various attempts to fortify the border have also altered immigration routes. As in the past, when a path is blocked, migrants find another one.
For a long time, the preferred (and most direct) route for Central American migrants was the Rio Grande Valley, in southeast Texas. The number entering at that point is still growing, but nowhere near at the rates as in the El Paso area, hundreds of miles northwest. In a matter of months, the number of children traveling alone or with their families jumped by nearly 1,500%, from less than 800 in February, 2018 to more than 12,000 that month this year.
The increase in traffic has overwhelmed the Border Patrol’s local installations, to the point that agents kept immigrants, including children, under an overpass for lack of room.
Crossing through the El Paso area, instead of the more urban Rio Grande Valley, for example, also poses new dangers for immigrants—and the agents in charge of them. Last year, a 7-year-old immigrant girl died after being kept in a remote Border Patrol outpost for hours.
In another attempt to stop people from entering the US, Trump has directed asylum seekers to legal ports of entry. But the administration is only letting in a few at a time to make their case, a practice known as “metering.” The slow-moving line means that thousands are having to wait months for their turn.
Some are getting tired of waiting and are entering the US illegally, as Border Patrol officials admit. Once they do, US law allows them legally to apply for asylum. Last year, border officials told DHS’s Office of the Inspector General that they noticed an increase in illegal crossings near ports of entry using metering.
Partly because of this, the share of immigrants border agents encounter after they’re already in the US is growing—exactly the opposite of what Trump intended.
Trump’s brief record at trying to curb illegal immigration demonstrates what experts have known for a long time. As long as conditions in their countries of origin remain dire and businesses in the US are willing to hire undocumented workers, immigrants will find a way to get in.
They—and the smuggling industry that serves them—have a long history of quickly reacting to changes at the border. The Trump administration should try to imitate their ability to adapt. Had the US rejiggered its immigration system when the profile of immigrants started to change years ago, it wouldn’t be so overstretched now.
Even amid the crisis, there are steps that the Trump administration could take relatively quickly to stem the flow, for example, by deploying more asylum officers at the border who can settle claims shortly after immigrants make them.
That’s not what the president has in mind though. He’s instead suggested completely doing away with the asylum system.