WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — Families are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers, surpassing levels seen during the 2014 crisis that caused widespread consternation at the highest levels of government.
New numbers show approximately 32,117 families, mostly from Central America, flooded the Southern border in the first six months of fiscal year 2016, reports the Pew Research Center.
In the same time period of 2015, that number was less than half that, clocking in at 13,913 families. In 2014, agents apprehended 19,830 during that period.
Crisis in Central America
“People who are trying to save their lives come to this country because they can be safe here and they can live a better life – a better future for their family,” claimed Ivania Castillo.
Like many other El Salvadorans, Castillo fled to the United States in 1980 to save her life. She’s now a nursing aide.
“I came with 23 people from my family,” recalled Castillo. “We were fleeing for our lives, and we came to this country because of the civil war.”
Castillo joined a group of pro-immigration activists from CASA de Maryland to protest deportations of certain families under the Obama administration, arguing that all families fleeing rampant gang violence in their home countries should be given safe haven.
According to Castillo, gangs threaten the daily lives of youth in Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, saying if the families “don’t give them money, then they kill the father or their mom, or their daughter or their son, so that’s why they’re fleeing country; because they’re trying to save their lives.”
Migrant makeup shifting
The origin of families migrating to the United States without proper documentation shifted significantly over the past year.
Mexican migrations are down; Central American numbers are way up.
El Salvadorans spiked from 3,313 (FY2015) to 11,093 (FY2016) – a nearly 300 percent increase during the first six months of this fiscal year.
During the same period, Guatemalans surged from 4,537 to 9,720, and Hondurans jumped from 3,418 to 8,065.
Increase causes alarm
Under federal law, migrants with a credible fear of persecution or harm in their home countries are legally allowed to seek asylum by entering the United States.
However, many skeptics suspect the uptick in families is reflective of President Barack Obama’s weak immigration policies and enforcements rather than an explosion of legitimate asylum claims.
Furthermore, they argue that allowing more families to enter the country actually damages the current state of affairs.
“What doesn’t help these countries is simply letting the people leave. That takes pressure off the corrupt government to make much needed domestic reforms,” said investigative associate Ian Smith of the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI). “You’re removing protesters from the street. You’re removing people from rallying, from organizing, from trying to lobby the government to make these crucial reforms that are needed.”
And if the trend continues, Smith, an attorney focused on immigration matters, predicts the numbers will continue to climb.
“If you keep giving reprieves to people, unfortunately, you’re creating bad messaging, you’re creating moral hazard,” declared Smith. “You’re going to get more bad behavior because you’re not enforcing the law.”
For pro-migrant activists like Castillo, the best course of action is expediting the asylum claims of families escaping the dangers of their home countries.
“We’re happy here. We’re working. We’re providing. We are good citizens,” Castillo passionately explained. “We contribute to the economy of this country, so we want the same American dream for the people who are coming from Central America.”
On the other side, IRLI’s Smith warns that the families pay human smugglers who are connected to drug cartels, which then perpetuates the original problem of drug and gang violence.
“They’re receiving billions through the smuggling trade,” Smith said of the drug operatives, “and they’re using that money to prop up their drug dealing business, selling poison to kids all across our own country.”
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales