The U.S. Border Patrol recently released some stunning apprehension figures for the Rio Grande Valley. While the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border is still experiencing some of the lowest apprehension rates in forty years, the number of border crossers caught in the Valley has tripled since 2010.
The nexus of migration has shifted from Tucson, Arizona to South Texas. Since 1998, Tucson, Arizona, has registered the highest number of yearly apprehensions. But in 2013, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector reported 154,453 migrant apprehensions compared to 120,939 for Tucson.
For anyone working with the immigrant community in the Rio Grande Valley, the new figures come as no surprise. There has been a huge influx of women, children and men from Central America fleeing skyrocketing violence and seeking refuge in the United States. South Texas has long been a favored route for Central Americans but the numbers of migrants in the past two years is the highest since Central America’s civil wars more than three decades ago.
Most troubling are the thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—fleeing deteriorating security conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In April 2012, South Texas shelters for unaccompanied children reached overflow capacity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, scrambled to find emergency shelters for the children. The agency even called on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to provide shelter to more than 100 Central American kids.
The number of children pouring across the border hasn’t abated since then. And the Office of Refugee and Resettlement has had to secure more shelters across Texas to house the children.
“In Central America, organized crime and gang activity are leading to some of the highest murder rates in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate for regional security at the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America. “What surprises me about these apprehension numbers is how fast it has grown in the past two years. The number of people has tripled.”
Because of the violence in Central America, parents already in the United States without documents are paying smugglers to bring their children across the border. Other children threatened by growing gang violence are fleeing to the United States even if they have no relatives here. It’s a humanitarian disaster, says Isaacson. Migrants are targeted for forced labor, extortion and recruitment by the cartels. “On the route to the United States, just about everyone is either robbed, kidnapped or raped,” he says.
Once they cross the border into the United States, migrants hiking through the desert or rugged ranch lands can die from heat exposure or hypothermia. The Border Patrol reported 156 deaths in the Rio Grande Valley in 2013, second only to Tucson where 194 people died.
In June 2012, Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, published an open letter to Congress asking that they address the unfolding humanitarian crisis through immigration reform. As Limon wrote in a letter published in The Texas Observer:
“The central fact of our existing immigration policies is that they keep families separated. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed by Congress in 1996 created the current problem. All at once it erected a major barrier for parents here illegally from ever seeing their young children again.”
One other trend that stands out for me from the latest Border Patrol report is the historically low level of apprehensions for Mexicans continues. In 2012, the Pew Research Center attributed this trend to a number of reasons including heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers of crossing the border as well as a decline in birth rates.
But the growing security crisis in Mexico is also having an impact on immigration numbers. What the Border Patrol doesn’t track is the number of political asylum requests. As noted in a recent New York Times article, political asylum requests from Mexico more than doubled from 13,800 in 2012 to 36,000 requests in 2013. Many Mexicans seeking asylum have moved to U.S. border states like Texas. And no doubt, with things deteriorating in Michoacan and other states we might see even more asylum requests in 2014.
The takeaway is that the humanitarian crisis is growing and much of it is now playing out in Texas, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.