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The changing face of undocumented immigration

Most unauthorized immigrants now are families fleeing Central America. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says reducing asylum-seekers requires addressing violence and poverty in the region.

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A Honduran family stands with their son at the Todo por Ellos (All for Them) immigrant shelter in Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico, in June 2014. 2016 has seen a rise in families from Central America requesting asylum in the US.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters/File

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When you think of undocumented immigration, do you picture Central American families seeking asylum? 

Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, says that demographic group exceeded the figures for Mexicans or single adults in 2016.

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Violence and poverty in Central America are particular "push" factors driving the families to leave their homes, Secretary Johnson says. And because they are overwhelmingly asylum-seekers – rather than the economic migrants who have entered the United States without papers in the past – they are permitted to stay in the US until their claims are processed.

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The changing face of undocumented immigration may affect how the US addresses the issue. Johnson called for a judicious mix of policies to address poverty and violence in the region, including allowing for in-country asylum requests and improving border security technologies. 

"We are determined to treat migrants in a humane manner," Johnson said in a statement on Monday. "At the same time, we must enforce our immigration laws consistent with our enforcement priorities. This has included, and will continue to include, providing individuals with an opportunity to assert claims for asylum and other forms of humanitarian relief."

The tide of immigrant demographics was turning in 2014, when a surge in undocumented minors crossing the US border and requesting asylum prompted President Obama to call it an "urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response."

Officials planned to send a strong message against undocumented immigration by quickly processing the asylum cases and returning the migrants to their home countries.

An unprecedented volume of asylum cases, however, quickly overwhelmed the immigration courts. Today, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse reports that there was a backlog of 512,000 cases as of August, around a quarter of which are for children.

As the backlog has grown, so has the wait time for cases to be resolved. In 1998, immigration cases were resolved within 10 months. The wait is now closer to two years, and in some areas, almost three.

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This has highlighted a growing need for immigration judges, particularly in states on the southwest border. Dallas recently added a judge to help ease the caseload burden.

More than that, more than 86 percent of immigrants were able to demonstrate a "credible fear" of returning to their home countries, US Citizenship and Immigration Services said. Those immigrants are allowed to remain until their cases conclude, which intensifies pressure on services.

Border controls may help to address part of the problem. Mexico stepped up its policing in 2015. But unlike economic migrants, asylum-seekers need to get into the US judicial system to have their cases heard, meaning that walls are less of a deterrent. Asylum-seekers may turn themselves in at the border and simply request protection.

For Johnson and other experts, the long-term answer is to reduce the "push" factors driving Central American immigrants to the United States: violence and poverty. Violence is particularly prevalent in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

"If you're in a burning house, you’re going to find a way out," Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission, told NBC. To reduce the number of immigrants, the US and regional governments will need to quell the flames.

Congress authorized $750 million for support and aid to Latin America in fiscal year 2016. Johnson called for an expansion of that financial support in the future. 

In July, Costa Rica announced a protection transfer agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. This will allow asylum-seekers to make their requests for US asylum in their home countries. In-country processing is available to Central American applicants who are not classified as "most vulnerable."

For Central American minors and their families, there is a specific program to help the children request asylum and reach the United States. In addition, US and Mexican officials are developing a working group that will maintain a "permanent dialogue on security issues" long after the two current presidents leave office.

Americans shouldn't worry about security, either, Johnson added. Some 60 percent of deportees are now convicted criminals, up from 35 percent in 2009. The Department of Homeland Security also continues to target smuggling and exploitation.