The pattern of illegal immigration appears to be shifting yet again as families traveling together — usually mothers and their children — surge across the southwestern border at a record pace, posing more challenges for an Obama administration still struggling to figure out how to handle them.
They are increasingly coming into remote areas of Texas and Arizona where Border Patrol officials thought they had licked the problem. Analysts say it signals that new cartels are involved in trafficking.
Pushed from their homes by poor economies and violent communities, encouraged to come to the U.S. by friends and relatives who have made the crossing, and enticed by lax enforcement, more than 32,000 family members were apprehended at the border through the first six months of the fiscal year. That was more than double the rate of 2015.
This year’s total has well surpassed the number of children traveling without parents, whom the Border Patrol calls unaccompanied alien children, caught at the border during the same period last year.
While the majority are still coming through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, which covers remote western Arizona and eastern California, has reported a 1,000 percent increase compared with 2014. Laredo and the Big Bend areas of Texas have also seen massive spikes.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the cartels that control the approach on the Mexican side of the border in those regions appear to have taken up human smuggling.
She said the fact that families have surged ahead of unaccompanied children suggests Central Americans, who make up most of the new crossers, have learned to game the U.S. immigration system.
“They’re not dissuaded from coming by the fear of being detained and sent back — they know that they’re still going to be released,” she said. “The fact that it’s families coming now tells me that this may be people seeking to establish a foothold in the United States and taking advantage of this opportunity. When this surge was mostly kids, it was clear it was a family reunification phenomenon. Now it’s starting to look more like an opportunistic flow of people.”
State officials in Texas and Arizona referred questions to the Border Patrol, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The flow of Central American children and families — chiefly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — began rising in 2013 and seemed to peak in early summer 2014. That was when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced get-tough policies, including opening family detention centers to hold illegal immigrants, quickly put them through hearings and send them back home.
But a federal judge last year ruled that sort of treatment in many cases violated a legal agreement that the government reached with immigrant rights advocates. Homeland Security officials told the court that relaxing their policies would spur another surge, but they agreed to abide by the judge’s order even as they appealed the case.
The 32,116 family members apprehended from Oct. 1 through March 31 set a record for the start of a fiscal year.
Meanwhile, the 27,793 unaccompanied children is just beneath the record pace set in 2014. Still, that is an improvement — through the first few months, the Border Patrol was on a record-breaking pace.
Homeland Security officials say the number of people apprehended is a good proxy for the total flow: If fewer people are caught, then fewer people are trying, and succeeding, to sneak into the U.S.
The numbers for children and families were running well above record pace in November and December, dropped over the cold months of January and February, and are climbing again. In March alone, some 4,240 children traveling alone, and 4,452 people traveling together as families, were caught at the border.
James Phelps, a professor who studies border security at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, said the November and December spike was likely in response to the Republican presidential race and the promise by leading candidate Donald Trump to build a border wall. More could be on the way, he predicted.
“Who gets elected in November will determine if the numbers will decline to a ‘normal’ influx or a massive surge in illegal border crossings. Basically, if a Republican with an anti-illegal-immigration platform wins, then everybody that can will cross the border so they will hopefully be grandfathered under the current administration’s policies,” he said in an email. “Should that happen, it’s important to note there is no infrastructure to process or hold the numbers of people that will arrive.”
For now, the number of unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is down significantly from its peak in 2014, Mr. Phelps said.
“This is expected,” he said. “The countries are running out of a whole generation of youth to send north.”
But there has been an uptick in the flow from Nicaragua, he said, noting that the Nicaraguan numbers climbed when the price of oil dropped, causing a chain reaction that cut off aid from oil-rich ally Venezuela, harming Nicaragua’s economy.
Still, he said, the numbers generally appear to track the usual seasonal patterns.
“You can expect to see a decline in overall numbers and those of [unaccompanied alien children] in July and August, then an increase in September. This is typical of migrant movement over the longer periods of study. There are permutations, but they tend to be driven by other factors we haven’t yet ‘officially’ narrowed down,” he said.
Under the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law, unaccompanied children are required to be processed and released as quickly as possible — usually to family or friends.
Congressional investigations found that some have become prime targets for recruitment by gangs, while others are used for forced labor or by sexual predators.
The Associated Press last week reported that 80 percent of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. are placed with parents or relatives who themselves are in the country illegally. The Obama administration has said its goal is to find the children safe spaces, no matter the legal status of those who accept them.