Since December, there have been several reports of migrants dying, both while crossing the border and in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as well as watchdog reports documenting poor conditions and “dangerous overcrowding” at CBP detention centres.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration has been in the spotlight as advocates claim the growing number of migrants held in detention centres is straining a system that is ill-equipped to care for them.
Throughout his election campaign, one of Trump’s biggest promises was to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has erroneously referred to migrants as “criminals, rapists and cartel members.”
According to an analysis reported on the New York Times, there is no evidence that supports a connection between undocumented immigrants and crime in the United States.
The rhetoric surrounding U.S. immigration policy became such a hot-button political issue that it took away from what was really going on at America’s southern border: an influx of asylum seekers arriving after a treacherous journey with the hope of applying for protection in the United States.
Who are the migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border?
As it turns out, the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is at an all-time low. Data from CBP shows that crossings peaked in 2000, when roughly 1.6 million migrants were apprehended by officials after crossing the border.
Irregular border crossings have been on the decline since then, with a few fluctuations from year to year.
However, experts say the number of migrants isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the changing demographics of the migrants coming across the border.
Before the Obama era, migrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico were predominantly single men and boys looking for work. But around 2014, data from CBP shows that a shift happened: children travelling with their families began showing up at unprecedented levels in search of refugee status.
“The majority of families who are coming to the U.S. southern border are from the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And these are countries that have been going through some incredibly difficult times,” said Grace Meng, acting deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, people arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum.
WATCH: (Aug. 11, 2019) Increase in border crossings due to Trump administration policies: Blair
Asylum may be granted to people who are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
The journey to the U.S.-Mexico border
Most migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are travelling from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and fleeing gangs, violence and corruption back home.
According to Project Ploughshares, migrants often travel roughly 1,500 kilometres to reach Texas — the shortest route to the United States — and close to 3,500 kilometres to arrive in California.
During their journey through Mexico, migrants face the risk of extortion, kidnapping, physical and sexual assault and human trafficking.
Some resort to a network of cargo freight trains known as La Bestia. Migrants travel on top of these trains, and many fall off, losing limbs or even dying in the process. Others are targeted by criminal gangs who board the trains and charge travellers a fee in U.S. currency. Those who do not pay can be beaten, thrown off the train or left for dead, Meng said.
“The journey is not one that anyone would take lightly, and I think that’s really important to remember when the Trump administration claims that all these migrants are making fraudulent claims of asylum, that they are trying to game the system,” Meng said.
“People don’t leave their home countries unless they have to, unless what they’re facing at home is so much worse than the dangers that they face along the way.”
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has so far been unable to build his promised border wall. Instead, experts say he has found another way to cater to his core group of supporters.
“He hasn’t been able to build a wall, and so one thing that he can do is implement policy after policy after policy that tries to essentially shut down the U.S. asylum system,” explained Kate Jastram, senior staff attorney and gender asylum campaign director at UC Hastings College of the Law.
As part of a broader border crackdown, Trump instituted a zero-tolerance policy in April 2018, calling for every undocumented migrant who crossed the border to be prosecuted criminally.
WATCH: (Aug. 3, 2018) Mexican wife of U.S. veteran deported reportedly under Trump ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy
Crossing the border without inspection is considered a misdemeanor in the U.S., unless that individual has crossed without inspection several times or is caught smuggling drugs or people. While this has rarely been enforced in the past, Trump’s zero-tolerance policy has led to a crackdown on all migrants crossing the border without inspection.
“The zero-tolerance policy that this administration put into effect said every single person, every single adult who has crossed that border not at a port of entry is going to be criminally prosecuted for that misdemeanour,” Jastram said.
Metering is also a recent practice that’s been implemented at the U.S.-Mexico border.
CBP officials use metering as a way to manage the flow of people seeking entry at official ports, capping the daily number of asylum applications received at these border crossings.
Both Jastram and Meng argue that the asylum application process is deliberately being slowed down to deter people from crossing into the U.S. However, there is no data to suggest such deterrence tactics are actually working.
Another policy change that experts believe has exacerbated the problem at the U.S.-Mexico border is the detention of asylum seekers.
“What often happened, under the previous administration, was once people were past that first credible fear screening — meaning there was a significant chance that they were going to succeed in their asylum claim — they were often released,” Jastram said.
“And that’s because they’re not a danger to the community. They’re not a flight risk, and there’s not enough bed space to hold everybody.”
What’s different today is that these migrants are no longer being released — even if they have passed their credible fear screening and have a significant chance of prevailing in their asylum claim.
“That’s when we started seeing this vast expansion of, first of all, building of a lot of these tents,” Jastram explained, referring to CBP detention facilities.
“They call them soft-sided facilities that are basically just giant tents. And also seeing these severe situations of overcrowding in these detention centres, which were never built for kids and families in the first place and were often not built for people to stay for a long time.”
This increased detention has resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their families, Meng added.
She says several of her colleagues at Human Rights Watch have visited migrant detention centres in the U.S. to see the conditions in which children who have been separated from their loved ones were being held.
“Their hair was matted, they were dirty. They had not had regular access to showers, toothpaste, soap,” Meng said. “They were not getting enough food. They were exhausted, and many of these children had actually been separated from adult caregivers, from aunts, from grandparents, from people who they love and trust and rely on to take care of them.
“But they have been left alone in basically a jail cell.”
These family separations stirred an international outcry in 2018 following the enforcement of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. After mounting pressure, Trump walked back family separation two months later with an executive order.
But advocates say separations continue to happen. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates more than 700 families have been separated since then.
Migrants have been huddled in makeshift detention centres in Mexico, waiting for their turn to make their case to the U.S. government.
“People are in such dire, dangerous circumstances that they’re going to leave regardless of how terribly our current administration treats them at the border. I mean, it’s worse where they’re coming from so this effort of deterrence by cruel treatment isn’t really working,” Jastram said.