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on geopolitics

May 2, 2017 | 08:00 GMT

9 mins read

Who's Really Crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border

Latin America Analyst, Stratfor
Reggie Thompson
Latin America Analyst, Stratfor
Central America’s Overlooked Role in Illegal Migration
(ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

For all of Donald Trump's tough talk on Mexico on the campaign trail, few concrete moves to secure the United States' southern border have materialized in the first 100 days of his presidency. This is partly because of the inherent limitations of the office; to even begin trying to turn the ambitious pledge of building a border wall into a reality, the president would have to first secure the funding from Congress. So far, though, lawmakers have been reluctant to release any money for the project.

Yet while Trump's vision of a wall has been too impractical to implement, there is one statistic the president can point to as a win on border security. Since his election in November, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has plummeted. In October 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained about 45,000 people there; by March, that monthly figure had fallen to 17,000. Both Trump and the Department of Homeland Security have touted this drop-off as proof that the president is already making good on his vow to tighten border security and stem the flow of illegal migrants from the south.

Immigration Border Statistics

And in some ways, the president is right. Smuggling people through Mexico and into the United States is a business after all, albeit an illicit one. And like their legitimate counterparts, businesses involved in human smuggling are taking steps to account for the uncertainty rising to the north, much of which arose from the Trump administration's early rhetoric on securing the border and increasing the deportation of illegal migrants. Amid a lack of clarity on the number of border guards who will be hired in the coming years, and the size of the physical barriers that will be erected at certain crossing points, smugglers have raised their prices since October last year. In some cases, the price for transporting a single migrant from Central America through Mexico has more than doubled from $3,500 to about $8,000. Skyrocketing prices aren't the only thing putting a damper on migrant flows. Since Trump's inauguration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has had more leeway to deport migrants who are in the United States illegally, putting people who for years could count on drawing little attention from the authorities at risk of being expelled. (In the two years prior to the Trump presidency, those with extensive criminal records were prioritized for apprehension and deportation.)

The New Face of Illegal Immigration

Still, today's political discourse and reports on the state of illegal immigration are missing an important nuance: More and more, illegal border crossings through Mexico are motivated not by events in the United States' immediate neighbor, but by problems farther south. As it stands, illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States has been on the decline for nearly 15 years, thanks in large part to Mexico's improving economy and slowing population growth. Simply put, the country is far richer than it has been at any point in its history, and its population is no longer expanding so rapidly that its youths feel compelled to leave in droves to seek better opportunity in the United States. 

Instead, Central America is now responsible for most of the fluctuation in illegal migrant flows northward. Three countries in particular — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — account for the bulk of non-Mexican migrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Because these countries are much smaller than Mexico, they will never come close to supplying a migration surge on the scale of that seen from Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike Mexico, however, their economies aren't getting any better. Each of the three countries suffers from rampant violent crime, due to cocaine trafficking from South America and to street gangs that prey on locals through extortion and frequent killings. For instance, El Salvador's annual murder rate is 80 per 100,000 inhabitants, while Honduras' is 59 per 100,000 — both more than 10 times the United States'.

A Temporary Lull

This precarious situation raises an obvious question: How long can the recent dip in illegal immigration really last? The U.S. government's statistics on the arrest of illegal migrants over the past six months show that the White House can certainly make a dent in migrant flows by simply encouraging the belief that crossing the border is getting more dangerous. It's no surprise that the changes in ICE policy — which were extensively covered in the media — gave would-be migrants pause. Most, who hail from nations where the lowest rural monthly minimum wage falls between $100 and $350, cannot easily afford the trip. Moreover, nearly half of the adults in these countries are frequently unemployed or eke out a living in informal jobs, where niceties like a minimum wage aren't available.

So far, such abject poverty has helped the Trump administration in its quest to cut down on immigration. The prohibitive cost of migrating in uncertain circumstances has stopped many people from risking their savings — and their safety — to travel to the United States. The trip across Mexico is not an easy one for Central Americans, who often fall victim to cartels and corrupt police officers as they travel north. Female migrants are routinely raped, and all face daily perils such as starvation and dehydration. In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, beggars on street corners who are missing limbs are often those who risked the trip and failed to make it past Mexican territory. Despite heavier patrols by Mexican authorities, migrants often still ride the freight train between Chiapas and Veracruz states, since it is a quicker way to traverse the expanse of central Mexico. But falling asleep on the roofs of moving freight cars, or losing their balance while trying to board the train, can be a death sentence if they fall under the train's wheels. These beggars are the lucky ones — they lost an arm or a leg in the attempt but escaped with their lives. Amid higher prices and a greater threat of deportation, fewer and fewer people are willing to risk their well-being on the endeavor. That said, Central America's extreme poverty and unchecked crime will continue to make the trip to the land of opportunity an attractive proposition for those who can afford it and choose to brave the risk. 

The Illegal Market Corrects Itself

There is another factor that could boost illegal immigration once again, though it rests not in the poverty-stricken cities and countrysides of Central America but in the halls of power in Washington. The U.S. government's own budget talks may end up assuaging some of human smugglers' concerns about what the future holds, driving down their prices and hiking up migration in the process.

Trump's vision for the border — that is, one of more solid barriers to illegal traffic — will be constrained and shaped by the budget negotiations. Though a wall stretching from California to the Gulf of Mexico was an impossible project from the outset, building segments of wall across parts of the border people frequently cross is perfectly plausible. But such a plan will not get off the ground until at least late 2017, after lawmakers have appropriated the first few billion dollars for the study, design and initial construction of those walls. The Department of Homeland Security has already identified priority areas near towns and cities along the border where the first segments will be built.

Time is not on the president's side, though. The soonest construction could begin is late this year, leaving the president with only three years at most to increase border security. During this time, the president will also have to ask for the funding to hire more border security agents, but onboarding and training these forces is time-consuming and expensive. It is unlikely that the 5,000 new Customs and Border Protection agents and 10,000 new ICE agents Trump has promised will all be trained and deployed before the end of the president's term in 2020. And if Trump is not re-elected, further initiatives to build more barriers and employ more personnel could taper off during the next administration — whether led by a Republican or Democrat.

It is precisely this scenario of a one-term Trump presidency that could foster more illegal immigration. Should smugglers realize that the administration's border wall will not pose a significant barrier to their activities, their prices will drop and the pace of Central American migration will pick back up within a few years. Though more modest border initiatives will impose some constraints on smugglers, they will likely adapt. Meanwhile persistent security problems in Latin America, such as an uptick in Colombian cocaine production and governments' failure to rein in violent street gangs, could also spur people to seek haven in the north. In Colombia's case in particular, the government's push to make peace with the country's militants has led to a halt to the aerial spraying of coca plants, driving up cocaine production. As long as international demand for cocaine continues to steadily rise, criminals in Central America will remain willing to ferry it to Mexican drug trafficking organizations, triggering violent turf wars along the way that force citizens to abandon their homes and head to the United States.

Arrests of Central Americans in Mexico

Unsurprisingly, Mexico will still play an important role in stemming renewed migration from Central America. Since 2013, the country has cracked down on the passage of Central Americans through its territory, particularly in the major transit state of Chiapas. Mexican authorities monitor the railways and roads more heavily than they once did, and the number of migrants deported each year nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016 to reach 153,000. This type of cross-border cooperation is crucial to the border security of Mexico and the United States alike — something security professionals in Trump's Cabinet will doubtless take into account as the administration crafts its policy on other issues of interest to Mexico, such as the renegotiation of NAFTA.

Predicting the direction of future migration flows to the United States is a task riddled with uncertainty. Even with knowledge of the constraints on the U.S. presidency and the factors causing migration, other events like Mexico's decision to keep pressure on Central American migrants or the outcome of the U.S. presidential race in 2020 will affect the amount and timing of the movement of people across borders. Regardless, the White House will face an uphill battle in trying to enact its desired policies, and Trump's results on border security are likely to be far more modest than his campaign promises as he contends with budgetary constraints and enduring instability in Central America.

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