Central America: child migrant ‘crisis’ vanishes

The administration of US president Barack Obama announced on Sept. 30 that it planned to set up processing centers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras so that children from these countries could apply for US refugee status without actually entering the US. Officials said the new policy came in response to the spike over the last year in illegal crossing into the US by unaccompanied minors and by women with small children. The number of Central American children admitted through the program would be small, however, according to an administration memorandum which provides for a total of 70,000 refugees to be admitted in fiscal 2015, the period from October this year through September 2015. This only includes 4,000 refugees from all of Latin American and the Caribbean, although some Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans could be admitted through another 2,000 slots not specified for particular regions. (CNN México, Oct. 1; New York Times, Oct. 1)

The administration first floated the idea of in-country refugee applications for Central Americans in July. Bill Frelick, the director of the refugee program for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization, responded in August that "there is little reason for confidence that an in-country processing program would serve the protection needs of the most vulnerable people in the most imminent danger of serious harm." He noted the experience with such a program in Haiti in the early 1990s. "By May 1994, 54,219 had filed applications, representing nearly 106,000 people; only 10,644 cases had been decided, and only 7.7%t of those cases were approved. On Aug. 1, 1994, Haitian police and paramilitary forces attacked a line of applicants waiting for refugee processing, beating and arresting a number of them." (Politico.com, Aug. 13)

Meanwhile, the spike in border crossings by Central American children and families has ended. A total of 68,541 minors were detained trying to cross the border in fiscal 2014, according to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, a 77% increase over fiscal 2013, with a peak of more than 10,000 in June 2014. But the number dropped to 5,501 in July, to 3,141 in July and to 2,424 in September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a speech on Oct. 9. (Fox News Latino, Oct. 10, from EFE)

Several different explanations have been offered for the disappearance of what had been referred to as a "crisis" in border crossings. Most explanations have attributed the drop to enforcement measures: efforts by the Central American governments to deter emigration, harsher treatment of Central Americans while they try to cross Mexico, and increased detention of asylum seekers once they reach the US. One possible cause has received little attention. In May US functionaries, mostly from the CBP, asked 230 detained migrants why they chose "this particular time" to enter the US. A "high percentage" of migrants cited rumors that after June the US would stop the practice of releasing many asylum seekers into the US with a notice to appear later in immigration court.

This suggests that many Central Americans who may have been considering emigration at some time in the future–either because of poverty in their home countries or the threat of gang violence–decided to head north in the first half of this year before the US could make it more difficult to enter. Since people who might have decided to emigrate later moved up their departure date, the number of border crossers kept increasing until June and then suddenly dropped. Rumors later that the cutoff would be in October seemed not to have a similar effect. This could mean that rumors actually don’t have a big influence on migration flows, but it might simply mean that many people who would otherwise have crossed the border later had already done so by June. (Truthout, Sept. 4; Vox Media, Sept. 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, October 12.