Central America Families Cross U.S. Border in Record Numbers

  • Apprehensions by Border Control on southern U.S. border climb
  • Family members crossing reach a record of 78,000 in 2016

Central American immigrant families walk through the countryside after crossing from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

A record number of Central American families fleeing violence crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the most recent fiscal year and total apprehensions were up, according to figures released by the U.S. government.

While the exodus is smaller than two years ago, when an influx of unaccompanied Central American children stunned unprepared officials, the number of youngsters accompanied by relatives was the highest ever, the data released Monday showed.

That’s an indication that the administration’s strict policy of raiding homes and deporting migrants, while also attempting increased levels of diplomacy in central America, isn’t entirely working. Apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the year ended Sept. 30 totaled almost 409,000, up 23 percent over fiscal 2015.

“Unaccompanied children and families have presented new challenges in our immigration system,” said Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in a statement. “We are determined to treat migrants in a humane manner. At the same time, we must enforce our immigration laws consistent with our enforcement priorities.”

Immigration has been a flash point in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who are both fighting to woo Hispanics, a critical voting bloc comprising 27 million voters. Republican Trump has blamed Mexicans for “taking our jobs” and has advocated deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Clinton, a Democrat, has said she will push for comprehensive reform while at the same time helping legalize those in the country without documentation.

The migrant crisis that began in 2014 has been a politically tricky issue for President Barack Obama’s administration, which has formally removed more people from the U.S. than any other. Obama’s policy of sending back Central American children and their families has roiled immigration groups.

Complicating matters, the administration announced last month that it would resume deportations of Haitian migrants seeking asylum after the devastating 2010 earthquake in the Caribbean nation. Scores of Haitians had been waiting for legal acceptance and advocacy groups were stunned when Johnson made the announcement.

“Obama made a commitment after the earthquake saying we would not forsake Haiti,” said Jennifer Johnson, border policy adviser of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “We really need a continuance of that commitment.”

The Obama administration has established an in-country referral program in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that allows would-be migrants to apply for refugee status before they embark on the treacherous 2,500-mile journey to the U.S. Johnson also announced Monday that the U.S. has “resolved to create” a permanent working group with Mexico to address security issues, including fortifying that nation’s own southern border to stem the tide of migrants passing north.

Still, analysts say the administration hasn’t done enough to address the administrative and judicial side of the problem in the U.S., specifically the years-long wait to process asylum claims.

“Those systems in the U.S. are deeply backlogged,” said Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “That serves as its own incentive to try to get to the United States, because it means once you get here, as a mother with young children for instance, you will be here for several years before you even have your hearing.”

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