Illegal border crossings to U.S. plummet, more refugees seek asylum in Mexico

In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, migrants share an evening meal inside La 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco state, Mexico. More Central American migrants are asking for asylum in Mexico. (Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

After a series of federal actions cracking down on illegal immigration in the United States, fewer migrants are entering the country illegally, but more refugees are seeking asylum in Mexico.

On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the number of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico dropped by 40 percent from January to February, the Guardian reported. In the past, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has typically seen a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in apprehensions in the first two months of the year.

“Since the administration’s implementation of executive orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years,” Kelly said in the Guardian report.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees in cities and towns across Mexico is growing. Officials reported a 154.6 percent increase in asylum requests in 2016, according to recent figures from the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees. Almost 90 percent of those requests come from Honduras and El Salvador.

“These numbers reflect that Mexico is, increasingly, becoming less of a country of transit and more a country of asylum or destination,” said José Francisco Sieber, who heads UNHCR’s protection unit in Mexico.

The changing migration trend is likely to please supporters of Trump, who campaigned on a promise to clamp down on illegal immigration in the U.S. It seems this promise will be realized long before the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – arguably Trump’s most drastic (and expensive) proposal.

“Deterrence through perception is central to these executive orders,” Faye Hipsman, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told the New York Times. “Even floating the possibility of expanding detention at the border makes somebody less likely to come.”

The Trump administration has already expanded its deportation efforts, including the expedited removal of illegal migrants who have been living in the U.S. for up to two years. This week, the administration released a revised executive order to suspend refugee resettlement programs for 120 days and temporarily ban the entry of citizens from six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days.

But migrant advocates say the policies responsible for the decrease in illegal border crossings have endangered the lives of millions of the most vulnerable people in Central America.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) warned that the revised order would devastate those in the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program, which allows children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – who have a parent legally present in the United States – to apply for U.S. refugee status or parole.

The three so-called Northern Triangle countries have the highest rates of violence in the region. El Salvador is the murder capital of the world. WOLA officials said minors are particularly vulnerable to forced recruitment from local gangs, extortion or pressure to enter relationships with gang members.

“With the suspension of the refugee program, many children in Central America will now have to decide between two terrible scenarios: stay and risk their life, or make the dangerous journey through Mexico in an attempt to seek safety,”  Maureen Meyer, WOLA’s senior associate for migrant rights, said in a statement earlier this week.

Under the Trump administration’s new order, Meyer added that millions of the most vulnerable Central American children would be forced to wait additional months for their refugee claims to be processed.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com