By Rafael Bernal
President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees could create a new wave of illegal border crossings, experts warn.
The latest iteration of Trump’s travel ban includes a provision that halts entry of all refugees into the United States for 120 days.
That could interfere with an Obama administration-brokered deal that allowed Central American children to apply for refugee status in the United States without leaving their countries.
The Central American Minors program was created last year to reduce the number of unaccompanied minors and family units fleeing through Mexico and illegally trying to cross the southern border into the U.S.
Although the program remains in place, Trump’s latest executive order sets out new rules for the number of refugees the United States will accept.
“The problem is that we are maxed out, because, remember, [Trump] decreased the number of refugees that are allowed into the U.S.,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.).
“We could already be maxed out at 100 percent in 90 days. That means no one else could come in,” she said.
With that avenue of escape closed, many may choose to make the dangerous crossing through Mexico instead.
Central American children and family units have become the main drivers of illegal immigration, as resettlement from Mexico has leveled off since 2009. Since 2014, Mexicans have accounted for less than half of all illegal border crossings.
Maureen Meyer, a migrant rights specialist at the Washington Office for Latin America, said the Trump administration’s dissuasive efforts could change the plans of Central Americans seeking a better economic situation in the United States but are unlikely to deter those fleeing violence.
“I would suspect that certain families will decide that the risk is so dangerous that they’ll send their children [to the United States]” either way, Meyer said.
Experts agree that it’s difficult to measure how many Central Americans migrate to the United States for economic reasons and how many do so because of a credible fear. But various studies point to violence as a major and growing concern for Central American migrants, particularly those from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Since 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a nearly fivefold increase in Northern Triangle asylum-seekers coming to the U.S., which its report calls “a staggering indicator of the surging violence shaking the region.”
That report found that homicide rates in those countries dwarf the global average of 6.2 homicides per 100,000 people.
In 2013, Honduras had a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people; El Salvador’s rate was 82.2 per 100,000 people; and Guatemala’s was 39.9 per 100,000 people. The UNHCR further found that 82 percent of women from those countries who claimed asylum in the United States in 2015 were found by American authorities to have a credible case.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has proposed action designed to deter Central Americans from migrating to the United States via smuggling routes.
“I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America from getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings people through Mexico to the United States,” Kelly told CNN this week.
One proposal Kelly put forth was to detain any adults illegally entering the country with children and putting those children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Democrats have panned that idea.
“It’s a terror tactic; it’s sheer terror,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who questioned Kelly last month at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting. During that hearing, the Homeland Security head said he would enforce existing law as long as it was on the books but admitted there was space for reform.
“I beg you” to change flawed immigration laws, Kelly told Correa at the time.
“When he told me that, you know, please help him change the law, I think he was being sincere. I think he’s following orders from the top down,” Correa told The Hill.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
Deterrence actions have had mixed results in the past.
“The U.S. government for years has had many PR programs trying to tell people of the risks of the journey or that there has been no change in U.S. policy,” Meyer said.
While more Central Americans are choosing to stay in Mexico than ever before, many are attracted to the United States because they have family members who are already in the country.
While Mexico, Costa Rica and other countries in the region have agreed to take in more refugees from the Northern Triangle, their programs are even more limited than that of the United States.
Costa Rica, for example, agreed to take 250 refugees a year.
Torres, who was born in Guatemala and sent by her parents to live with family in the United States at age 5, said the Trump administration should focus on programs already in place to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle, rather than implementing actions that could tear families apart.
The California lawmaker pointed out that Kelly, a former leader of U.S. Southern Command, knows the region well.
“We already have a process to address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle, and he better than anyone else knows exactly what we’re doing in the Northern Triangle,” she said.