Amid Crisis, Ports Process 34% Fewer Central Americans

For the first time ever, two countries—Guatemala and Honduras—have surpassed Mexico as the top nations of origin for immigrants apprehended crossing illegally into the United States. Along with El Salvador, immigrants from three Northern Triangle countries of Central America have made up three quarters of Border Patrol apprehensions this year.

Nearly all Central Americans cross the border and seek out a Border Patrol agent to turn themselves in to. The primary reason that they do this, rather than come to a port to apply, is that Customs and Border Protection has capped the number of undocumented immigrants it will process at ports. This means that officers will physically block their entry to the port and force them back into Mexico.

The current cap—which has no basis in the asylum laws—is about 10,000 per month, roughly half the level in October 2016. It has remained at about this level for over a year. But that’s just the overall number. For Central Americans from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, the numbers of undocumented arrivals processed at ports plummeted in Fiscal Year 2019—they’ve fallen 34% from a monthly average of 2,920 to 1,938 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Monthly average number of undocumented Central Americans

At this pace, CBP will process 23,250 Central Americans at ports this year compared to 35,041 last year. Salvadorans are down 38 percent, Guatemalans 46 percent, and Hondurans 12 percent. This is happening at the same time that the number crossing illegally between ports has doubled for each nationality. Honduran illegal crossings have nearly tripled. The share of undocumented Central Americans processed at ports fell from 14 to 4 percent.

Unfortunately, CBP has not published full data back to FY 2016, but it has quarterly figures for unaccompanied children and families from FY 2017 to FY 2019. These two groups accounted for 86 percent of undocumented Central Americans at ports during the last two and a half years. These statistics show that CBP has reduced processing of Central American unaccompanied children and families at ports by 63 percent from the first quarter of FY 2017 to the second quarter of FY 2019. Salvadorans are down 86 percent, Guatemalan 68 percent, and Honduran 20 percent.

Figure 2: Undocumented Central American unaccompanied children and families

The initial decline in the second quarter of 2017 was caused by fewer migrants coming overall, due to the belief that the new administration would end asylum. The more recent decline is mainly because more Nicaraguans, Indians, and Cubans are arriving at U.S. borders this year, so immigrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—have lost cap space at ports. The Northern Triangle share of undocumented immigrants from countries other than Mexico processed at ports of entry has fallen from 65 percent to 41 percent. One cause of this dynamic is that the ending of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy has forced Cubans into the regular asylum process, adding the lines of asylum seekers at ports of entry in Mexico.

Figure 3: Monthly average number of undocumented Central Americans

The inevitable response to this exclusion at ports has been for Central Americans to walk around the ports and cross illegally. Central American asylum seekers are not safe in Mexico. Tijuana and Juarez are particularly inhospitable places for homeless foreigners, and the police in Mexico not only won’t protect them but often engage in shakedowns of immigrants themselves.

The most outrageous part of the capping of asylum seekers at ports is that it encourages illegal entries. The purported reason for the cap is that CBP lacks the resources to process them, but it lacks the resources precisely because the agency hasn’t deployed the resources or adopted the policies necessary to process them. That’s because it really doesn’t want to process them.

This is even more ridiculous when you consider that the government also lacks the resources to process asylum seekers between ports of entry—at least in the exact way that it wants. Yet the agency has adopted emergency measures to make it happen: creating temporary holding areas outside, not referring families for asylum interviews, releasing immigrants at the border without transferring them to the interior, and—believe it or not—moving officers at ports (!) to between ports. All of these measures only further encourage illegal crossings.

The government has seemingly created the perfect storm of perverse incentives at the border to perpetuate a crisis rather than defuse one. It could process people at ports and end most illegal crossings tomorrow. But its chosen policies are only making the problem worse.