In the 2016 presidential election cycle, illegal immigration was generally attributed to Mexican migrants and a border wall was prescribed to prevent them from entering the United States. While the rhetoric resonated with many voters, it belied the vastly more complex trends in illegal border crossings and what is needed to address them. Most undocumented migrants arriving at the US border today are not Mexican, and a border wall will not affect what happens when they arrive.
Last year, Border Patrol apprehended nearly 409,000 people attempting to illegally cross the southwest border, a dramatic increase from the 331,000 in 2015, though somewhat less than the high mark of 479,000 in 2014. Last year, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol apprehended 59,757 unaccompanied children and 77,857 family units, respectively a 13 percent decline and 12 percent increase from 2014. Border apprehensions are often an indicator of how many people are entering the United States undetected, but the numbers in 2016 do not tell the whole story.
According to the Pew Research Center, there was no statistically significant change in the illegal immigrant population in the United States between 2009 and 2014. But that does not mean illegal entries have stalled. From 2009 to 2014, 13 states saw a change in the size of their unauthorized immigrant populations. In states where illegal populations decreased, it was because illegal Mexican residents left. In states where illegal populations increased, it was due to a growth in the number of residents from countries other than Mexico, which in many cases are those in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). Last year, the number of apprehensions from Central America exceeded those from Mexico, the second time that trend has been seen, with the previous instance in 2014.
Policy changes implemented by the Obama administration also resulted in increasednon-Mexican illegal immigration. Apprehensions of Haitians at the San Ysidro Port of Entry increased from a few hundred in 2015 to more than 5,000 in 2016. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Obama administration halted deportations of illegal Haitian residents, a policy that eventually was reversed, meaning the tacit approval of illegal Haitian residency now merits deportation. Meanwhile, the number of Cuban immigrants increased 31 percent in 2016 from a year earlier, with 56,406 Cubans arriving at US ports of entry. With the Obama administration’s decision to end the longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which had allowed Cubans who reached the United States to remain, Cuban arrivals without documentation will now be added to the number of non-Mexican apprehensions.
The common denominator among these migration trends is not the nationality of the migrants, but the land they traverse to arrive at the US border: Mexico. As such, a core component of the US border security strategy needs to be continuing and improving upon our support for Mexican border security.
Stemming migration through Mexico
There are two ongoing initiatives to address the movement of people through Mexico to the United States. In 2014, Mexico launched the “Southern Border Program.” Primarily focused on Mexico’s southern border, the program was billed as an effort to bring order to migration into Mexico and guard migrants’ human rights. While Mexico decriminalized undocumented border crossings nearly a decade ago, the Southern Border Program has in practice focused on disrupting migration routes north and deporting those apprehended.
Mexican law enforcement has targeted migrants attempting to hitch rides on cargo trains running north, one in particular dubbed La Bestia (“the Beast”). It has also set up checkpoints on highways and on the border with Guatemala. It has increased patrols and raids in areas where migrants are known to travel, and, it has expanded the presence of security forces along the southern border, including agents from the Gendarmería (a division of the Federal Police) and the National Migration Institute. As a result, in 2015, Mexico detained more than 190,000 migrants, meaning the country is deporting more Central Americans than the United States. Importantly, Central American migrants are not always destined for the United States. Many remain in Mexico and compete for jobs with Mexican nationals, often accepting lower wages.
Meanwhile, one way the United States has supported Mexico’s border security is through the Mérida Initiative – a program of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Started in 2008, it has been a multi-billion dollar vehicle for funding counter-narcotics operations and police and military training as well as reforming the Mexican judicial system from a closed inquisitorial system to an adversarial model – much like we have in the United States. The initiative also dedicated funding to Central American countries to address endemic gang violence, improve law enforcement and advance judicial reforms. Since 2008, the Mérida Initiative has delivered $1.5 billion to Mexico. Because this funding is in part contingent on Mexican human rights reforms, Congress withheld 15 percent of Mérida funding in 2015 given incidents like the disappearance of 43 young people in Iguala, Mexico in 2014 and reports of torture that took place in the ensuing investigation.
These efforts have drawn criticism. Detractors argue that, in practice, the initiatives fuel violence and imperil migrants. Critics posit that Mérida Initiative funding has helped militarize Mexico’s law enforcement, leading to increased conflict with drug cartels. Meanwhile, Mexican detention and deportation of Central Americans is rapid and particularly indifferent to the reason for an individual’s travel, such as fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle. Disrupting common northern routes, such as trains, haspushed migrants to use more dangerous routes where they are vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse by human smugglers. To be sure, there is room for improvement, but critics seldom propose alternatives short of the status quo, which is untenable.
Where do we go from here?
The trendsin migration from Central America and other countries is pushing the current approach to border apprehensions to its breaking point. There is a backlog in the US immigration court system, which is attempting to process the tens of thousands of applications for asylum from migrants, indicating a “credible fear” of returning to Central American countries, which is the preliminary standard for asylum application. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with detaining or monitoring those who are awaiting adjudication, but as DHS reported to Congress in October 2016, due to the number of arrivals, the department faced a $136 million funding shortfall for detention and non-detention monitoring.
The reality is that by US law, once an individual sets foot on American soil, they enter the overwhelmed legal system – wall or no wall! Some people forget that the current wall, and whatever future wall is constructed, is on US soil.
For now, the only short-term solution is to decrease the number of people apprehended at the border, and doing that means preventing migrants from reaching the United States in the first place. That is one of the objectives the Mérida Initiative and the Southern Border Program are attempting to achieve, albeit imperfectly.
Critically, migrants traveling north, particularly unaccompanied minors, are extremely vulnerable, with disturbing and frequent reports of rape, kidnapping and murder. I am convinced that anyone who ultimately reaches the US southern border from Central America has been abused and taken advantage of by human traffickers. The cartel activity is just too prevalent. Yet, the potential for abuse is presumably seen by migrants as less concerning than the violence and crime in the countries from which they flee.
Longer term, we need to help Central American countries and others address the factors that are causing people to make the perilous journey to the United States. One recent effort to do so was the Obama administration’s “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” which allocated nearly $1 billion to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to stimulate economic growth, education and better governance, as well as to disrupt human trafficking networks.
Yet, for US companies, the INL process seems shrouded in secrecy. Often when companies have requested to meet with the Division Chief for Grants, Acquisition and Procurement Policy, they are met with form letters from the Division Chief informing them they do not meet with vendors. The truth is they don’t seem to meet with anyone.
Success in the years ahead will hinge on collaboration and partnership between the United States and Mexico. Yet, the Trump White House’s rhetoric has put the US-Mexico relationship on shaky ground. The administration is insisting Mexico somehow reimburse American taxpayers for the costs associated with the much-debated border wall. And talk of punitive important tariffs on Mexican products threatens the important economic relationship between the United States and Mexico, in turn hurting the prospects for bilateral cooperation on illegal immigration.
Rest assured that the Border Commerce and Security Council and its members will continue to be involved in this fight. A serious approach to securing the US border must begin with the acknowledgement that physical barriers and the law enforcement agents at all levels who patrol it should be the last line of defense, not the first.
Recognizing that, we can appreciate just how essential Mexican border security is to the United States, mend the growing rift between our countries, and affect an enduring solution to the real trends in illegal immigration.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates and chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council. He’s a leading authority on US borders for trade, travel, energy and security issues. Prior to assuming his current role he was President of the Border Trade Alliance and a presidential pick to lead the private sector division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency where he earned the Secretary’s Award for Excellence. He also served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council appointed by former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, where he was awarded the department’s highest civilian award – the Outstanding Public Service Medal. He has extensive experience in the public and private sectors at the local, state and federal levels. He worked closely with the US, Canadian and Mexican governments at every level by advocating on behalf of policy initiatives designed to improve border affairs, trade and security relations, and cultural understanding. In 2014, he was re-appointed to the US Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory Council by United States Trade Representative and the Secretary of Commerce.