Officials at the southern border are bracing for another wave of child immigrants in the coming months, though they anticipate a much lower crest than last year.
Migration analysts project that almost 40,000 unaccompanied children will try to cross into the United States from Mexico this year, down almost 45 percent from 2014.
It could also trigger another political fight over the thorny issues of border security and immigration reform, particularly as the 2016 presidential contest heats up over the summer.
Administration officials, who were caught off guard during last year's surge, say they've taken lessons from the experience and are much better prepared this year. But border state lawmakers and child welfare advocates, while pleased with the lower projections, are also concerned that policymakers – both in the White House and on Capitol Hill – aren't doing nearly enough to address the issue.
“We're doing a lot better [but] we still need to be doing more,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from a border district, said Friday by phone. “When you drill down to actual numbers, you're still talking about thousands of kids. … It's almost as if they're trying to downplay it, the administration.”
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was also critical of the administration's commitment.
He said the lower projections largely reflect the White House’s effort to get Mexico and other Central American governments to block unaccompanied children before they reach the U.S. border. That’s to the detriment of children who might be eligible for U.S. asylum but are instead returned to dangerous conditions back home.
“The fact that the numbers are lower is not because the administration has had an effective PR campaign or conditions in those countries have improved. We've exported the enforcement,” Appleby said Friday. “They're pulling kids off the trains; they're stopping them at the Mexico-Guatemala border. … So there's still a violation of international law there.”
Gil Kerlikowske, head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said the agency is “in much better shape today” than it was just a year ago, particularly when it comes to shifting children out of overcrowded facilities and into larger detention centers with medical care.
Still, Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), lamented the backlogged court system, dearth of legal counsel and expedited hearings process that treat kids “basically like suspected terrorists.”
“We don't believe that every child has to stay in the United States,” Young said Friday. “But we do believe that every child should have a right to tell their story.”
Cuellar, who won a victory this year by attaching language to a DHS funding bill reimbursing border communities for their efforts managing the crisis, also says the court structure is grossly under-resourced. He’s pushing a proposal this year to add 55 new immigration judges – many of them appeals judges – to expedite the process.
“What are we going to do with all the pending cases we have?” he asked.
A report this week from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute projected that the apprehension of child migrants will reach roughly 39,000 this fiscal year – down about 40 percent from last year’s peak of almost 69,000, but still among the highest tallies on record.
Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy program and author of the report, said a major reason numbers have fallen is that Mexico has ramped up deportations of children at its southern border. Along with other Central American countries, Mexico also has launched public education campaigns discouraging illegal immigration.
Rosenblum said the increased enforcement has sent the message that immigrants are likely to face consequences for trying to illegally enter the U.S.
“With all immigration, social networks are very important,” Rosenblum said. “There was some momentum that built [last year] and people realized that this was a successful model. That momentum has turned in the other direction.”
Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Marsha Catron suggested the improvements are largely the result of the “unprecedented manpower and resources” accompanying the agency's response to last year's crisis, including a surge of border security agents, the construction of new detention facilities and a focus on battling the smugglers who encouraged the migrants with promises of asylum in the United States.
“We responded with decisive action, and the situation has improved significantly,” she said, adding that DHS continues “to review and update our plans and procedures to ensure we are as prepared as possible for any potential scenario.”
The months of March, April and May are historically the peak time for border crossings due to the spring weather.
Still, even if the flow of child migrants returns to the 2013 rate – an historic high at the time – it might not lead to the full-blown crisis of last year.
The House delayed its August recess to pass legislation providing a supplemental $694 million for border agencies to deal with last year’s surge. Meanwhile, the Senate was never able to pass its $2.7 billion measure. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ultimately shifted about $406 million from other agency programs to provide resources for the border.
By the time lawmakers returned from the five-week summer break, fewer child migrants were crossing the border largely due to intense summer heat, and the issue was placed on the congressional backburner.
President Obama is hoping to tackle the problem with $1 billion in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – where a bulk of the child migrants have originated. The funding is intended to fight the crime, corruption and poverty that’s helped encourage the flight.
Border lawmakers and children’s advocates have praised that effort, though some are warning that the changes Obama is hoping to inspire won’t come overnight.
“One year does not a difference make,” Appleby said. “It's going to have to be a long-term commitment.”