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After a lull in 2015, border apprehensions surge

Apprehension of families and unaccompanied children surged again along the Texas-Mexico border in 2016, reflecting the new prevalence of illegal immigration from Central America.

Unaccompanied child migrants from Honduras voluntarily turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents near Roma on Mar. 8, 2016.
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The number of families that were apprehended or turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley swelled by 90 percent during the government’s 2016 fiscal year over the previous year, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics released Monday.

Meanwhile, the number of children traveling alone that landed in the agency’s custody in that sector increased by more than 50 percent during the same time. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Agents in the Rio Grande Valley came across about 52,000 families and about 36,700 unaccompanied minors during the 2016 fiscal year. That’s compared to 27,400 and 23,864 respectively in 2015.

Overall, the total number of apprehensions on the country’s southwest border increased by more than 77,500 to 408,870 in 2016 compared to the prior year’s 331,333.

The 2016 figures represent the second time in three years that Central Americans outnumbered Mexicans caught trying to cross the southern border illegally. The trend continues a pattern that began in 2014, when tens of thousands of Central Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began fleeing violence and poverty and arriving at the Texas-Mexico border to seek asylum from U.S. officials.

Though the Rio Grande Valley is the epicenter of the problem, the figures show that every Border Patrol sector in Texas saw at least a double-digit percentage increase in apprehensions in 2016. In the Del Rio sector, apprehensions of unaccompanied minors increased by 18 percent and family units by 66 percent. In Big Bend, the increases were 13 and 30 percent, respectively.

The Laredo sector saw a 20 percent increase in apprehensions of minors and family units, while the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, saw an increase in minor apprehensions of 134 percent — from 1,662 in 2015 to 3,885 in 2016. The increase is even larger — 364 percent — for family units apprehended in El Paso. In 2015 agents there processed 1,220 family units. That number jumped to 5,664 in 2016.

In a statement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson conceded that while apprehensions last year increased, they didn’t reach 2014’s historic levels. Instead, he touted the government’s efforts in stemming the flow, including social programs.

“Ultimately, the solution is long-term investment in Central America to address the underlying push factors in the region,” he said. “We continue to work closely with our federal partners and the governments in the region, and are pleased with the $750 million Congress approved in FY 2016 for support and aid to Central America.”

Others point to the apprehension figures and conclude the pressure the U.S. government applied to Mexico to seal its southern border isn’t working. In 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said the government would spend about $100 million to help bolster security in its southern states. The effort also sought to improve economic and social programs near the Guatemalan border.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, some of the funds came from the U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative, a program signed by former President George W. Bush aimed at providing training and equipment to help increase safety and battle corruption in Mexico and Central America.

Mexico’s efforts to secure its border have been met with mixed reviews, however. Luis Arriola Vega, a summer visiting scholar at the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Mexico, said that while the effort made a small dent, the beefed-up security only made migrants take different and more dangerous routes after a while.

“Even though the program did delay for some time the flow of migrants and potential asylum applicants to Mexico, a process that was already underway prior to 2014, the problem has not been solved,” Vega wrote in an analysis of the program in August. “The latest numbers show that people continue to arrive and, in consequence, show up at the U.S. border too.”

Read more of the Tribune’s related coverage:

  • Bloody gang conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and sparked a years-long exodus from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to the United States.
  • For the second time in three years, the U.S. Border Patrol is apprehending more non-Mexicans than Mexicans along the southwest border, most of them in Texas.

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