The number of unaccompanied children streaming into the U.S. from Central America has fallen sharply in the past month, according to figures released by the Department of Homeland Security.
The number of unaccompanied children has been cut nearly in half, from 10,628 in June to 5,508 in July, and the number of adults with children has fallen even more sharply, from 16,330 in June to 7410 in July. Officials say similar decreases have been seen in the first week of August.
The shelter for unaccompanied children at Lackland Air Force Base, which was packed with more than a thousand kids at the height of the immigration wave two month ago, formally closed on Monday, due to the low numbers of children entering the country today.
“When the numbers were climbing, it was because of a lack of a consequence,” Victor Manjarrez, a retired Border Patrol Chief and currently Associate Director of the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Texas El Paso, told Reuters Monday. “They would come up, be arrested, and be released with a promise that they would show up at a court hearing at a later date.”
Manjarrez says the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has moved quickly to stand up shelters for the children and for adults with children to be held pending deportation is a ‘message that has been heard’ in Central America.
“The minute that there was a consequence, and they started holding people pending deportation hearings, there was an immediate drop,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tx.), who represents a large stretch of the U.S. Mexico border and is a leader in Congress on immigration issues, agreed.
"The fact that we are detaining more individuals and sending back a large amount to their home countries has been a factor," Cuellar told Reuters on Monday. "We have also seen aggressive messaging by the United States, Mexico, and Central America to deter illegal immigration and smuggling."
Cuellar said the heat of the summer is also a factor in the decline in arrivals.
Catholic Charities, which has housed and cared for an estimated 14,000 Central American refugees fleeing violence in their home countries in the last two months, says fear of deportation is indeed driving the drop in immigration, but Kim Burgo, Senior Director of Disaster Operations, says this is not a good development.
"This is due to the fear these migrants have of crossing the border and being returned immediately to the same home they are escaping due to violence and crime."
Burgo said many of the refugees may be 'waiting' on the Mexican side of the border to see if there is a change in the policy toward the immigrants.
Other factors which are believed to have contributed to the end of this immigration spike include a decision made by the operators of the Mexican 'death train' to speed up the train, making it impossible for smugglers and their human cargo to jump on top of the cars for a northbound ride.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement that the administration’s ‘surged resources’ have led to the decrease, including reducing ‘removal time’ for many unaccompanied adults from 33 days to four days.
“The Department of Justice and this department are dedicating additional resources to removal proceedings involving unaccompanied children and families, to insure they are sent home quickly and safely and in accordance with our laws,” Johnson said.
Manjarrez says the surge was entirely due to ‘lies’ being told to desperate parents in Central America looking for a way to protect their children from rampaging criminal gangs. He said smuggling cartels, mainly part of the Mexican drug gangs looking to expand their operations, would tell the parents that the U.S. was offering what they called a ‘permiso,’ or a guarantee that once a child or an adult with a child made in into the country they would be released. He said he saw the same thing happen with waves of family groups that entered the U.S. from Central America in 1994 and 2003 when he was Chief of the Border Patrol sctor in Tucson, Arizona.
“You would see the smuggling organizations feed on people’s hopes and desires,” he said. “And in most cases, that means they lied to them.”
When officials on July 31 opened a huge facility specifically designated to hold women arriving in the U.S. with children, the goal was to send that message.
“The U.S. border is not open to illegal immigration,” Enrique Lucero of Customs and Border Protection told reporters at the time. “After your arrest and immediate detention, there is every likelihood that you will be returned to your home country.
He went out of his way to show off facilities for the residents to consult with their attorneys, and courtrooms where immigration judges would hear cases.
Burgo says the smuggling of desperate people into the U.S. from Central America is not a new development. She says Catholic Charities has been providing housing and reunification services to them since the 1980s, when several countries in the region were racked by civil war.
"What should be of most concern is the trafficking of people into this country," she said.
Cuellar says the U.S. needs to continue its joint efforts with Mexico and Central America to 'send a strong signal that human smuggling to the United States will not be tolerated.' Officials say some Central American families paid as much as $8,000 in borrowed money to smuggling gangs to get their relatives into the U.S.
Manjerrez says the previous immigration surges were caused by, and ended by, the same factors as this one.
"And I'm sure next time the smugglers sense an opportunity, we'll see another one," he said.