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The child migrant crisis seems to be over. What happened?

Families deported back to Guatemala this summer.
Families deported back to Guatemala this summer.
Johan Ordonez/AFP

Earlier this summer Washington was in a panic about the "border crisis" — the arrival of tens of thousands of families and children from Central America crossing over the Texas border.

But by the time Congress returned in September, the crisis had completely dropped off the radar of policymakers, the media, and the public. So what happened?

Quite simply, the surge of child migrants has stopped. As of August 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border had fallen back below the previous year's levels. (Apprehensions are a good metric here, because most of these children and families are actively seeking out Border Patrol agents once they reached the United States — rather than trying to cross undetected.)

Apprehensions of unaccompanied children

The flow of children into the US fell off more quickly than it had started. (Department of Homeland Security)

Is this decline real? Back in May, when apprehensions first started to drop, many analysts pointed out that children are typically less likely to travel through Mexico into the US during the heat of summer. That suggested the numbers might pick up again in the fall.

But the fact that, as of August, fewer children are arriving this year than arrived at the same time last year indicates that this isn't just a seasonal slowdown. It really looks like the flow of children into the country has slowed down to nearly manageable levels for the time being.

Indeed, the US government is no longer overwhelmed by the flow. Border Patrol officers are legally required to turn unaccompanied children over to the Department of Health and Human Services no more than 72 hours after they're apprehended. At the worst parts of the crisis this summer, they weren't even close to meeting that deadline — they took an average of more than three weeks. Now, according to Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, they're back to normal, turning kids over to HHS well within the 72-hour window.

At a speech in September, Deputy Secretary Mayorkas refused to say that the crisis was over. But it seems fair to say it's at least in remission.

Why are fewer Central Americans making it to the US border?

Other than the weather (which, as mentioned, doesn't look like a major factor), here are some things that could have driven the decline in migrants.

la bestia family

The journey on La Bestia is much riskier than it used to be. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP)

1) The Mexican government is apprehending migrants en route. One major factor for the slowdown is that the Mexican government has taken a much more aggressive attitude toward apprehending kids who are on their way to the US from Central America.

When asked by a reporter on September 19th to talk about the decline in child migrants, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske went out of his way to praise the Mexican government's work to interdict children en route. Mexico has been aggressive in apprehending kids riding "la Bestia," the freight train that many children ride through much of Mexico. (In the long term, there's a plan in the works to speed up "la Bestia" so that it's too fast for migrants to hop onto.) Furthermore, Mexico has set up immigration checkpoints in towns closer to the border — the mirror image of the internal checkpoints in the southwestern US.

Anecdotal reports from NGOs in Central America indicate that Mexico's efforts are reducing the number of migrants. One advocate in the United States said that he's heard reports that "what used to be 2 buses a day of kids coming back from Mexico (to one Central American NGO) are now 8 buses a day."

FBI raid fashion district

An FBI raid on L.A. fashion companies that were assisting cartels. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

2) US law-enforcement efforts to pursue smuggling networks. The federal government's law-enforcement arm kicked into high gear over the summer to go after criminal organizations that have been smuggling migrants to the US-Mexico border. Deputy Secretary Mayorkas said in September that this investigative work was a key cause of the decline. This month there's been at least one extremely high-profile federal bust of Los Angeles fashion businesses for money laundering and ties to trafficking organizations.

But there are two separate possibilities about why criminal investigations might have helped drive the decline. One is that smugglers have simply been kneecapped by American policing. The other is that the police operations served a deterrent effect: Once smuggling organizations realized that the American government was trying harder to track them down and arrest them, they decided to ramp down their own smuggling operations rather than take the risk.

Are Central Americans being deterred from making the journey in the first place? And why?

This is where it gets extremely tricky to figure out how important various factors are, because we're looking at the question of what Central Americans themselves hear about the trip to the US — and how they make their decisions.

The question of why so many migrants were coming in the first place was central to the political debate this summer. Republicans claimed that would-be migrants were lured by the Obama administration's efforts to protect unauthorized immigrants living in the US from deportation. The Obama administration, for its part, blamed smugglers for spreading false rumors, not the government's own policy.

Asylum advocates and lawyers, meanwhile, had a third explanation. Yes, they said, children and families were coming because they thought they'd be allowed to stay — but they were correct. That's because the separate process for dealing with child migrants meant that most of them would be in the US for over a year while the government decided whether they could stay. Furthermore, since many of them were fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, they'd be eligible for asylum or another form of permanent protection.

sad immigrant child detention

A child in a temporary detention center in Nogales this summer. (Ross D. Franklin/Getty)

Has this changed? It's possible that a few different factors are now deterring migrants from Central America from even attempting to make the journey in the first place:

1) The harsh treatment of Central American children and families in the US. In June the federal government began cracking down on children and families who'd arrived in the United States. It instituted mandatory detention for families, and sped up the process for evaluating whether children and families could stay in the US — with the explicit aim of deporting most of them as quickly as possible.

The reasoning behind this, officials said at the time, was to deter children and families still in Central America from coming to the US in future. If they saw or heard that children and families weren't actually being allowed to stay in the US, they wouldn't be as susceptible to rumors and lies.

It's hard to tell how much this has affected the decline. The flow of children started to slow in early July; given how long it takes to get through Mexico to the US, those children would have started the journey weeks before the federal government's crackdown.

But migration experts believe that migrants generally hear about things like this from their peers very quickly, and that this does drive their decision-making. If the slower process for dealing with child migrants really did incentivize more children to come, it makes sense that trying to speed up that process would have gotten rid of that incentive.

family border patrol

A family apprehended at the border. (John Moore/Getty)

2) The smugglers' rumors told migrants to come by the end of June. Border Patrol report from June said that the overwhelming majority of Central American families they had apprehended had heard they'd be eligible for legal status in the US. (This may have been the result of a misunderstanding that interpreted a notice to appear in immigration court as a work permit.) But there was an expiration date:

A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the U.S. urged them to travel immediately, because the United States government was only issuing immigration "permisos" until the end of June 2014.

The "end of June" rumor didn't have any grounding in the reality of US policy — there's no policy it possibly could have referred to — so it had to have come from smugglers. If it really was pervasive, it makes sense that the migrants who wanted to come to the US this year would have done it in May or June, rather than July or August.

On the other hand, smugglers can change rumors as easily as they start them; a separate rumor said anyone who came before October 1st would be eligible for a permiso. So it doesn't look like the "end of June" permiso rumor was all that big a deal.

CBP Central America poster

A poster warns Central American families that their children won't get papers in the US. (Customs and Border Protection)

3) The US public-awareness campaign in Central American countries. In order to combat the misinformation they thought was driving the migrant surge, the federal government launched a public-service-announcement campaign in Central American countries at the beginning of summer. The messages warned that the journey to the US was extremely dangerous, and said that people who came to the US would not be eligible for legal status.

In September Deputy Secretary Mayorkas cited the campaign as one of the reasons the surge stopped, but there's reason to be skeptical. The US and others have tried campaigns like this before, and they've never worked. It's possible this was the first successful migration-deterring public-awareness campaign in history, but it's not likely.

What can we learn about the underlying issues that caused the crisis?

Migrant family crossing

A family crossing into the US. (Omar Torres/AFP/Getty)

It will probably take several years for analysts to settle on an explanation for this summer's child-migrant surge — if they ever settle on one. But in the meantime, now that the surge is in remission, here are some conclusions.

1) Smuggling network capacity is crucial. It's pretty clear that, regardless of why people wanted to come to the US, they were able to do so because smuggling organizations were putting their efforts into bringing children and families from Central America to the US.

If the US and Mexican law-enforcement efforts are successful, many migrants probably won't want to do that anymore. But, just as it's likely that smugglers turned their attention to Central America to begin with because it was getting harder to smuggle people from Mexico, it's probable that smugglers will just find another market.

2) Rumors about US policies might be independent from reality. The end of the surge poses a big problem for some Republican members of Congress. They've been claiming that the surge can't be stopped unless the Obama Administration stops protecting unauthorized immigrants who are already here from deportation, through programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But DACA hasn't ended, and children and families have stopped coming (for the time being) anyway. Republicans have yet to acknowledge this — this week, several Senate Republicans called to end DACA because of the crisis on the southern border, implying that nothing had changed since June.

If one of the factors driving the surge was that children and families falsely believed they were eligible for legal status or "permisos" in the US, then it looks like that rumor's been stamped out (or has faded away). That means the rumor existed independently of actual US policy, and could be tackled without changing that policy.

3) Violence in home countries is a key push factor — and one that hasn't been fixed. It is, however, possible that the surge — especially of unaccompanied children — wasn't being driven by false rumors that they'd be eligible for protection under Obama, but the true belief that they would be eligible for protection under US law, because of the violence they faced in their home countries.

Over the summer, there was very little agreement among US government officials about whether children and families were fleeing gang violence and persecution in Central America, or just general economic deprivation. (That debate had key implications for whether they should be allowed to stay in the US.) In September, though, Deputy Secretary Mayorkas named violence as the key factor pushing people out of their home countries.

There's no evidence that children and families aren't coming to the US now because their home countries have gotten safer. To the contrary: The fact that the Mexican government is interdicting so many children indicates they're still trying to come.

What worries asylum advocates about some of the measures that have worked to stop the surge (the Mexican government's efforts, the expansion of family detention in the US, the messages that Central Americans categorically aren't eligible for legal status) is that they treat migrants who have been persecuted, and are theoretically eligible for protection, the same as those who haven't and aren't.

In that view, the end of the surge is only a success if you define "success" as fewer children and families managing to reach the United States — not if you define "success" as ending illegal migration into the US without impeding people who deserve legal status.

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