Originally published by USA Today
Historically, 90% of the migrants who illegally crossed the southwest border of the United States came from Mexico.
They were single adult men, typically seeking work in the U.S. They paid smugglers – known in Mexico as coyotes or polleros – to help them evade the U.S. Border Patrol. When caught, they were usually quickly deported.
That border is nearly unrecognizable today.
The percentage of adult males from Mexico crossing the border has plummeted. Meanwhile, the percentage of asylum-seeking adults with children in tow or children arriving without parents has soared, especially from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, three countries in Central America with high rates of poverty and violence.
Smugglers once guided groups of adult males through remote and often dangerous areas of the desert to evade the Border Patrol. Now, they are known to take migrant families and children to areas in plain sight of the Border Patrol, where the migrants simply surrender. Other migrants travel together in large caravans, perceived as a cheaper and safer alternative to traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border.
President Donald Trump has tried to stop the flow of migrant families and unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border through enforcement measures. One measure, last year's zero-tolerance policy, resulted in several thousand children being separated from their parents at the border, drawing an international outcry.
Trump also tried to halt migration by making asylum-seekers from Central America wait across the border in Mexico for their court hearings in the U.S., pressuring Mexico to stop Central Americans from passing through and by making it even harder for migrants fleeing gang violence and domestic violence, two common claims, to win asylum cases.
But migrants keep arriving.
Through August of the current fiscal year, the Border Patrol apprehended 457,871 migrants arriving as “family units.” That was a 406% increase compared to the 90,554 family unit apprehensions during the same period the previous year.
Migrant families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador made up almost 92% of the total. Honduras and Guatemala both had more than 180,000 family members reach the U.S. this fiscal year.
The number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border also spiked this year. Through August, the Border Patrol apprehended 72,873 migrant children. That's up 60% from the previous year and has already surpassed the record 68,631 apprehended in fiscal year 2014.
Experts say Trump's enforcement policies send the message that the door may soon close and gives smuggling organizations the perfect advertising campaign: Head for the U.S. now or never.
“I’ve heard people saying that these smugglers are seeing a closing window and are offering deals because that window is closing,” said Vicki Gass, senior policy adviser for Central America and Mexico at Oxfam America. “So, ‘If you take your 5-year-old daughter, I will give you a 30% discount.’ That type of thing.”
Trump blames “legal loopholes” for creating a “catch and release” system that human smugglers exploit to profit off migrants.
Total border crossings increased in May
The Rio Grande accounted for a large portion of border crossings. El Paso, Texas, saw the largest increase in crossings in May.
“Current law and federal court rulings encourage criminal organizations to smuggle children across the border,” Trump said on May 16 during remarks in the White House Rose Garden calling on Congress to make changes to the nation’s immigration system, including closing the so-called loopholes.
But the reasons behind the wave of Central Americans migrating to the U.S. are far more complicated than simply blaming "loopholes" or human smugglers.
Central American migrants often cite violent gangs that demand extortion payments or target teenage boys for gang recruitment or force teenage girls to become their “girlfriends” as some of the main reasons for fleeing.
The region's two largest and most menacing gangs, 18th Street gang and MS-13, originated in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1980s and were exported to Central America through deportations. They have expanded significantly in all three Northern Triangle countries through the recruitment of unemployed teens and young men, according to the Congressional Research Service.
While homicide rates in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have improved in recent years, the Northern Triangle countries still have some of the highest murder rates in the world.
Central American families and unaccompanied children are also migrating to the U.S. to escape pervasive poverty, domestic violence, economic inequality, political turmoil, the aftermath of civil wars, narco-trafficking, natural disasters and droughts caused by climate change, experts say.
“People are leaving because of failed states, and desperation and poverty and repression and lack of hope,” Gass said. “I think that is the biggest thing, the lack of hope.”