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U.S. President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration could hardly be less welcoming. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he pledged to build a wall across the entire southern border, deport all undocumented immigrants, and restrict legal immigration—including instituting a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. He has yet to deliver on the most draconian of these promises, but there’s no denying that his administration has made border security and immigration enforcement top priorities: it accelerated the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants, pushed to close “loopholes” that allow people arrested at the border to claim asylum, and, on Monday, announced a new rule barring migrants from seeking asylum in the United States if they have passed through a third country on their way. The rule, which is likely to be challenged in court, would effectively prevent anyone from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador from seeking asylum in the United States.
For a short time after his election, Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals seemed to deter would-be migrants. Apprehensions at the southwestern border hit a 40-year low in 2017. But the Trump effect didn’t last long: by the winter of 2018, border arrivals had begun to mount again. Apprehensions have risen dramatically since then, reaching a 13-year high of 133,000 in May.
What’s behind the reversal? For one thing, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about the “invasion” at the border has only advertised how easy it is to come to the United States. What better way to signal to would-be migrants that the door is open than to warn that “We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders” this year? For another, people who initially put their travel plans on pause after the election can see that while Trump has cracked down on immigration, the worst elements of his agenda may be yet to come. Rather than acting as a deterrent, Trump’s promises to build a wall and bar asylum claims, among other things, have generated a sense of urgency to make the journey before conditions become even harsher.
What better way to signal to would-be migrants that the door is open than to warn that “We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders” this year?
Although Central Americans still comprise the majority of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border and receive the most attention, more and more migrants are coming from other regions, mainly Asia and Africa. People from these regions now account for eight percent of total border apprehensions, up from just one percent ten years ago. There can be little doubt that the president’s rhetoric, coupled with the start-and-stop nature of his policies, has played a role in attracting migrants who might not otherwise have considered this route. As one smuggler working along the Guatemala-Mexico border told a reporter from Vice News, “Trump gave an opportunity for the entire world to get into the U.S.”
The crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border is unprecedented—but not because of the number of migrants arriving there. During much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 100,000 migrants every month. What is unprecedented about the current crisis is the vulnerability of the new arrivals. Whereas nearly all of them used to be Mexicans and most were adult men traveling alone (virtually none of whom claimed asylum), today almost two-thirds of those making the trek are families or unaccompanied children; less than one-fifth are Mexican. Nearly all of the child and family migrants, as well as migrants of all ages from countries other than Mexico—be they from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), India, or Nicaragua—now claim asylum when they arrive. And therein lies part of the problem: once they claim asylum, huge backlogs in the system allow them to remain in the United States for years, offering a strong incentive for more to come.
The Trump administration has responded with an array of tough, sweeping, and largely unsuccessful measures. During the spring of 2018, the Border Patrol separated thousands of families, prosecuting the parents for illegal entry and sending the children to shelters. Following international outcry and legal challenges, Trump rescinded the policy after less than two months, although the Border Patrol has since separated hundreds more children from their parents on narrower grounds.
The administration’s callous treatment of migrants is no secret. Pictures of children in cages have circulated around the world, alongside stories of migrants dying in U.S. custody and descriptions of horrific conditions in some facilities. But it appears that these horror stories have been drowned out by an even louder message: one of opportunity. The U.S. job market is the strongest in decades, and even those in the country illegally can easily find work—a message that would-be migrants’ relatives and friends already in the United States relay back to home communities.
Migrants arriving at the border from outside Central America are still a minority, but their numbers are rising fast.
Migrants arriving at the border from outside Central America are still a minority, but their numbers are rising fast. Nine months into this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 53,000 migrants who are not from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras—up from 20,000 in all of 2018 and just 10,000 the year before. Forty-five percent of these migrants from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world are traveling as families, up from less than ten percent a few years ago, mirroring the upward trend seen in Central Americans. In 2018, the most common countries of origin in this new group were India, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bangladesh—with India alone accounting for about 9,000 apprehensions.
One of the most surprising trends of this year is the surge in arrivals from African countries at the U.S.-Mexican border. In 2018, just 225 Africans were apprehended there, though hundreds more sought asylum at official ports of entry. But this year more than 700 Africans have been apprehended at just a single crossing point in Del Rio, Texas. Most are from DRC or Angola, and have made their way to nearby San Antonio or to Portland, Maine. Both cities have welcomed the central Africans, using public and private resources to provide food, shelter, and other basic needs. But their resources have been spread thin, and officials have had to reassure the public that the new migrants are not carrying the Ebola virus.
These migrants are the leading edge of a trend that will likely preoccupy the United States for years to come. African countries have among the highest birth rates, lowest per capita incomes, and most unstable governments in the world. Demographers project that due to rapid population growth and high poverty rates, Africa will produce more international migrants than any other continent in coming decades. Conflicts in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Burundi have already displaced millions of people in recent years. And in the DRC, where 4.5 million people are currently internally displaced (300,000 of whom were uprooted in the last month), a combination of ethnic conflict, political instability, and state repression has the potential to produce as many international migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.
Even though the vast majority of African migrants remain in neighboring countries, more are seeking to leave the continent. Hundreds of thousands headed to Germany, Sweden, and other European countries during the peak of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis in 2015–16. But their main route across the Mediterranean has been cut off as a result of European policies to thwart boat crossings and increasing violence and insecurity in North Africa, particularly in Libya, the most popular launching point. With this route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States.
With the Mediterranean route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States.
Within the United States, established communities of African immigrants in cities such as Houston, Minneapolis, and New York City have grown in recent decades and serve as a draw for people who are seeking employment or to reunite with family. But Trump slashed the U.S. refugee resettlement program by more than two-thirds after taking office, leaving far fewer places for officially sanctioned refugees. For the first time, significant numbers of Africans are choosing to make lengthy, arduous, and expensive journeys through South America, Central America, and Mexico to reach the United States. Many are reportedly paying thousands of dollars to fly to Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, from where they travel on to El Salvador or Honduras to join the northward Central American stream.
The flow of migrants from Africa and Asia to the U.S.-Mexican border is unlikely to abate soon. The world is experiencing the greatest humanitarian migration crisis since World War II, and most of the displaced are living on those two continents. Until recently, the United States was largely insulated from these pressures by geography. But with refugees and other migrants finding new routes and adapting to shifting policies, that may not remain true for much longer.
How many migrants choose to attempt this journey in the years ahead will depend on U.S. and regional policies. If the Trump administration continues to advance tough but incoherent policies while at the same time railing against the crisis at the border—paradoxically advertising the ease of getting across—more people from all over the world will likely continue to flock to the southern border. But if the administration tones down its rhetoric; reforms the U.S. asylum system to reduce the pull factor for migrants, and particularly families; and cooperates with governments in Mexico and Central America, it will be able to better control migration throughout the region. In an encouraging sign, total U.S.-Mexican border apprehensions dropped by almost 30 percent in June, as Mexico beefed up enforcement at its southern border with Guatemala and along migration routes throughout the country. The drop, however, could be seasonally driven, as migration across the border usually dips during the hotter summer months.
In the long run, the United States must join with other wealthy countries to invest in better governance, security, and economic development in regions such as Central America and central Africa. Pulling back from humanitarian and development assistance in these places risks compounding the push factors that are already generating today’s rising levels of migration. If it continues to pursue a go-it-alone strategy instead of cooperation, the United States will pay ever higher border enforcement costs—while imposing the highest cost of all on the migrants themselves.
Why the U.S. Needs to Engage Constructively