assessments

Apr 22, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Why Migrant Caravans Are not Behind the Recent U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing Slowdowns

A Central American migrant caravan on Nov. 11, 2018, passes through the Mexican state of Guanajuato on its way to the United States.
(ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Much has been made of so-called migrant caravans heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border, but they are a relatively small part of a broader problem increasing processing times for legal land border crossings into the United States.
  • These slowdowns affect the operations of businesses reliant on cross-border trade.
  • While current record levels of immigration will eventually drop off, seemingly intractable staffing challenges at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the national political fight over the border will continue.

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About 3,000 migrants from Central America crossed into Mexico from Guatemala via the Rodolfo Robles International Bridge on April 12, joining about 4,000 others already in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas hoping to make it to the United States. Based on the patterns of previous caravans from Central America, the migrants will take an additional three to four weeks to make their way north to the U.S. border, arriving sometime in early May. This timeline could be delayed, however, by an apparent crackdown by the Mexican government: Reuters reported on April 17 that Mexico City has sought to slow the caravans by closing visa offices in southern Mexico and stopping the processing of visas, stranding migrants in camps.

The Big Picture

Staffing shortages, a highly charged atmosphere over immigration and border security, and record-high numbers of would-be illegal border crossers — many of whom are children — have overwhelmed U.S. officials, with so-called migrant caravans a relatively small contributor to the slowdown in border crossings. Consequent delays at official crossing points where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents process thousands of commercial and personal vehicles every day have caused major problems for legitimate businesses. While current record levels of immigration will eventually drop off, the perennial challenge of securing the border and the national political fight over the issue will persist.

But while some migrants will turn back and some will seek shelter in Mexico, the majority will eventually push on to the U.S. border and will even be joined by others — swelling the size of the caravan. Nongovernmental organizations will help by arranging bus rides, providing meals and leading the group on foot at times. As the caravan moves north, it is likely to break up as groups head toward major crossing points into the United States at Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Piedras Negras.

The caravans are contributing to a surge in illegal border crossings into the United States, which has experienced more illegal crossings from Mexico than it has in 12 years. To boost patrols in overwhelmed sectors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reassigned hundreds of agents from high-traffic ports of entry, such as San Diego, and Laredo and El Paso in Texas. This in turn has slowed down the processing of legitimate border traffic.

The recent slowdown in processing times threatens the operations of businesses reliant on trade with Mexico. In El Paso, for example, wait times increased to two to three hours in early April 2019 compared with an average of about one hour in April 2015. At Otay Mesa, California, crossing was taking close to 4.5 hours in early April versus minimal wait times in November 2018. And California's San Ysidro crossing, just a few miles west of Otay Mesa, was shut down by protests and immigrants trying to force their way across. Laredo is also experiencing unusually high wait times of about four hours. No caravans, however, will arrive at the border in April. Moreover, the last time a caravan arrived on the border — when about 1,800 Central Americans reached Piedras Negras in early February — its arrival didn't cause a significant jump in legal border crossing times.

Migrant Caravans, a Small Part of the Overall Problem

While caravans have been drawing a great deal of attention in the national debate over immigration and border security, they are just one of a number of factors that have contributed to the crisis unfolding along the border with Mexico. Immigrants attempting to reach the United States by caravan make up a small percentage of total immigration from Mexico and Central America. The February Piedras Negras caravan, for example, accounted for little more than 2 percent of the 76,535 individuals that CBP agents apprehended that month trying to cross into the United States.

March 2019 in turn saw the highest levels of monthly reported apprehensions (103,492) at the border since April 2007, a 105 percent increase over March 2018. In March 2019, apprehensions were up 516 percent from March 2017, when migration along the border with Mexico was at record lows. From January to March 2019, CBP apprehended more Honduran and Guatemalan family units than in all of 2018 combined. So it is actually the overall increase in illegal immigration that is overwhelming the border, not the caravans themselves.

Seasonal Surges and CBP Staffing Woes

Immigration to the United States from Latin America is currently in the middle of its annual increase as seasonal workers attempt to make their way in. In a historical trend, border apprehensions — an indicator of overall illegal immigration patterns — tend to increase from February through May before dropping in June and July. So with or without caravans, the seasonal pressure on immigration authorities along the border should continue for the next one to two months.

Making it harder for the government to cope with the surge, and thus increasing legal crossing wait times, CBP has simultaneously been struggling with staffing shortages. In late March, CBP ordered the redeployment of 750 agents from El Paso and Laredo; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego to address the surge along less-patrolled sections of the border. That number could go up to 2,000 agents during April, and CBP could request even more if it deems it necessary — further straining resources at busy ports of entry.

Less personnel means fewer open lanes, delays in processing vehicles and backlogs that compound the wait time — ultimately raising shipping costs for companies and individuals that rely on products from Mexico.

During 2018, similar but smaller redeployments saw shorter delays. CBP moved 100 agents from El Paso to the Arizona and California sectors in November, causing wait times to double to about an hour in El Paso. This reallocation of resources has closely corresponded to the increase in wait times during early April. The agents' absence is forcing ports of entry to limit their operations. For example, Laredo was operating only 10 of 12 commercial lanes on April 12, while Otay Mesa was using only eight of 10. Less personnel means fewer open lanes, delays in processing vehicles and backlogs that increase wait times — ultimately raising shipping costs for companies and individuals that rely on products from Mexico.

The apparent shortage of CBP agents is nothing new. According to a 2017 report from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, CBP hasn't hit its hiring goals since 2014. It is also trying to fill 7,000 to 8,000 positions for new agents and officers to secure the border and ensure commerce continues without unreasonable delays. But nothing so far indicates the CBP will overcome its personnel shortages any time soon.

Faced with an influx of immigrants and a shortage of personnel to deal with them, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has chosen border security over the swift processing of commercial and private traffic from Mexico. While the president didn't go so far as to shut down the border as he threatened in early April, the redeploying of limited human resources away from entry points has still hampered trade.

The importance of border security to Trump, as evidenced by his insistence on a border wall, means the subject will remain a politically intractable issue. And while current record levels of immigration will eventually drop off, relieving some pressure on border security forces, the perennial challenges of an understaffed CBP and the national political fight over the border will continue at least through the next round of U.S. elections in 2020.

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