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Thousands more Central Americans will come to the US this year. That doesn’t mean there’s another border crisis.

This time last year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children — and nearly as many families, mostly mothers with children — from Central America were en route to the US through Mexico. The US (with a big assist from Mexican authorities) managed to tamp down the flow of children and families by August 2014. But the government refused to declare that the crisis was over. The reason: the real test, they think, is whether as many children and families will come from Central America during the next peak season for migration — in spring and early summer of this year.

So are we headed for another border crisis? The early numbers indicate that children and families will still be coming to the US — but not in quite the volume they came last year. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that the US will apprehend 39,000 unaccompanied children coming from Central America this fiscal year (from October 2014 to September 2015) and an additional 35,000 families. The real question is whether that's enough to constitute a crisis.

2014 seemed like a crisis because the system got overwhelmed

unaccompanied minors chart 2015
(Migration Policy Institute)

(Migration Policy Institute)

There are two things that are important to understand about the 2014 "border crisis." The first is that it was a long time coming. Unaccompanied children from Central America had started coming to the US in larger numbers in the fall of 2011. They overwhelmingly turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents (mostly in the Rio Grande Valley), but unaccompanied children couldn't simply be released or put in immigration detention. And the agency that was supposed to take care of them and place them with relatives in the US had way more children than they had beds available for them even before 2014.

The second is that the tipping point in 2014 happened when the system got so overloaded (by children as well as families) that it backed up all the way to the beginning of the process, with Border Patrol. It's when Border Patrol agents had to start keeping children and families in custody for days and weeks on end, and warehousing them in military facilities, that the issue got national attention as a "border crisis" — and prompted the crackdown from the White House.

So the question about 2015 isn't whether there will still be children and families coming to the US — there clearly will be, and it would be ridiculous to expect the US to fully prevent anyone from crossing the border (not to mention against international law, since many of them are seeking asylum).

Nor is it whether there will be as many as last year — there pretty clearly won't be. The Migration Policy Institute believes the US will apprehend about as many children as it did in 2013; it estimates more apprehensions of families than happened in 2013, but still only half as many as 2014. More recent data (via the Washington Office on Latin America) confirms fewer people are being apprehended:

The question is whether the US's systems for dealing with unaccompanied children and families who present themselves to Border Patrol agents are ready to handle another migration season. They might still be overwhelmed with last year's entrants: the government built new detention centers to hold immigrant families, but was keeping them pretty full with last year's arrivals (at least until a court decision last month made it easier for families to get released).

But if the government is ready to handle it, the only difference between 2015 and 2013 will be that more Americans might be paying attention. And that might show how much of the concern over the border "crisis" is really a concern about anyone at all entering the US without having gotten legal status first.

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