Zero-tolerance policy fails to stop migrant family surge
Migrant families continued to pour across the U.S.-Mexico border in June, according to the latest numbers, a signal that the government’s threat to jail parents and separate them from their children didn’t stop them from making the attempt.
Indeed, while the data released Thursday showed progress on the overall flow of people and on children traveling unaccompanied by parents, the number of families trying to sneak into the U.S. between the ports of entry remained virtually unchanged over the past three months.
Analysts were baffled. They expected the administration’s get-tough policy announced in early May to change patterns.
The administration’s zero-tolerance policy was supposed to scare migrants families in particular away from attempting to sneak into the U.S.
Under the policy, the government said it wouldn’t prosecute migrants who came to ports of entry but would jail those who jumped the border, including people who came with children. Because federal jails can’t accommodate families, that led to the separations that have stunned the nation.
Administration officials have disagreed over whether family separation was an intentional effort to deter families, but whatever the motive, the hope was that families would show up at ports of entry and request asylum, not sneak between the ports.
Instead, the opposite has happened.
Some 78 percent of illegal immigrant families who approached the border in June tried to sneak, and 22 percent came through the ports of entry to make a claim. The average of border-jumpers over the previous five months was 63 percent.
The number of people caught by Border Patrol agents is considered a yardstick for the overall flow, so more people nabbed means more people are getting through.
Overall, the Border Patrol did see a drop from about 40,300 to about 34,100 people. The number of unaccompanied alien children caught trying to sneak across the border dropped from nearly 6,400 to about 5,100.
Homeland Security touted the numbers as evidence that zero tolerance was working.
“Following the implementation of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the June 2018 Southwest Border Migration numbers declined by 18 percent when compared to the previous month,” said Tyler Houlton, press secretary for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The department did not address the continued surge of families and referred a reporter’s questions back to the broad claims of success.
Analysts said there is little evidence that zero tolerance is working.
With few exceptions, they said, the number usually drops in June as summer heat deters migrants.
“For all of the pain and outrage it has caused, during a month when it was at its most intense and generating worldwide headlines, the ‘zero tolerance’ policy had only a very small deterrent effect on would-be migrants,” wrote Adam Isacson, a border security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.
The family migration is chiefly made up of Central Americans. Of the 68,500 caught so far this fiscal year, more than 33,000 were from Guatemala and more than 24,00 were from Honduras. Some 8,500 others were from El Salvador, and just 1,565 were from Mexico.
Families say they are fleeing rough conditions of poverty, gang violence and government indifference back home. Security analysts say they are enticed to come to the U.S. by lax immigration enforcement.
Immigrant rights activists say they should be treated as refugees rather than as part of the usual flow of illegal immigrants dissatisfied with their lives at home and seeking better opportunities in the U.S.
While the number of families jumping the border has remained steady from April through June, at about 9,500 a month, the contours of the flow have changed. The number of families dropped significantly in the Rio Grande sector, in southern Texas, but spiked in New Mexico and Arizona.
Several analysts said it’s not the U.S. but the smuggling cartels that are controlling the flow of people and deciding where and how they cross.
While many migrants pay to be smuggled the entire route north, others will make the journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border on their own.
Once there, most still pay what they call the “mafia fee” to a cartel to be smuggled across the line and transported within the U.S. Even if they plan to cross on their own, paying the mafia fee earns them the password they must give to get by the cartel’s enforcers.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the cartels keep a steady flow of people jumping the border between the ports of entry because they use the people to keep Border Patrol agents occupied, creating holes in coverage that give the cartels a chance to smuggle drugs or other contraband.
Cartels also have scout camps on U.S. soil to help direct incoming traffic, sending those they want caught into the hands of agents while routing drug loads around them.
“The cartels control everything that happens,” Mr. Judd said. “The cartels are the ones that dictate where people cross the border. And so the cartels are going to continue to push people to cross between the ports of entry because they know it stresses our manpower.”
Smugglers also keep tight reins on information, so many migrants may not know they have the option of showing up at a legal port of entry to request asylum, Mr. Judd said.
Other analysts said the numbers do show the effects of one government policy change to impose order on those lining up to come through the official ports of entry.
Part of that involves having U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers out in front of the pedestrian gates at the border, prescreening people and telling would-be asylum-seekers when the port is full.
“I can see how that really would have an effect because they were turning people back before they could set foot on U.S. soil, who were clearly inadmissible,” said Jessica Vaughan, a security analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration limits.
Mr. Isacson said he saw the officers in operation a couple of weeks ago at the border in Arizona. He said he had to show his own passport just to be allowed in line to get to the counter to ask for readmission back into the U.S.
“In Nogales, they were metering the flow at a very low level: about six asylum-seekers per day, according to local advocates accompanying the asylum-seekers, while more than 110 were waiting their turn,” he said.
Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said there were cases in which parents show up at ports of entry as the government suggested and still had children taken away something the government said isn’t generally supposed to happen.
“If you are a mother hoping to request asylum for yourself and your child in the U.S. and you knew that going to a port of entry could either lead to your child being taken away or being turned away entirely, wouldn’t you decide to try to enter between the ports in order to lodge your request for protection?” he said.