Despite President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, thousands of asylum-seekers are still trying to reach the United States every month. Migrants in the most desperate circumstances haven’t given up on making the incredibly dangerous journey through Mexico to the southern border and still see the U.S. as a place of refuge, according to the latest data from United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Overall, the number of people trying to come to the U.S. illegally has plummeted since Trump’s inauguration, cheering Republicans and border enforcement hawks.
Staff at one shelter for migrants in Northern Mexico told The Daily Beast last month they were astonished by how few people were trying to reach the United States.
The president and his surrogates have touted it as an example of his success, but the reality behind the numbers is complicated, and points to the limits on efforts to deter migrants.
“There will be a core of migrants who are fleeing circumstances that are so terrible that they can’t be deterred, that no amount of fear about border enforcement is going to prevent them from leaving the circumstances that they’re in and trying to find protection,” said Faye Hipsman, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute who first pointed out the asylum numbers.
When undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. and get apprehended by Border Patrol agents, they can ask for what’s called a “credible fear” interview. If a migrant makes that request, then he or she will see an asylum officer, who will ask questions to try to determine if the migrant would be in danger if he or she is returned home. If the asylum officer determines the migrant is truly afraid, then the migrant gets to make the case to an immigration judge, who decides whether he or she can stay in the United States.
Historically, the majority of undocumented immigrants don’t claim asylum. But every month, thousands do, so much so that the United States is close to a tipping point, where most undocumented immigrants trying to enter the U.S. are claiming they are afraid to return home. In March of 2017, about half of the people apprehended at the border said they were seeking asylum—compared that to October 2016, when asylum-seekers made up less than one quarter of those apprehended.
The total number of asylum-seekers to reach the U.S. in March 2017—the most recent available data—was 6,141. About the same number did in February, 6,148.
The most claims this year came in January, when 9,198 sought protection in the U.S.
In March of 2016, meanwhile, 7,313 people tried to claim asylum at the border, according to USCIS (PDF).
These numbers are important because they point to the limits of deterring undocumented immigrants. While the overall number of immigrants trying to reach the U.S. has taken a nosedive, thousands of people fleeing violence and brutality haven’t given up.
“People are desperate to get into the country, so people who are fleeing join-or-die policies by gangs in Central America—they’re going to continue to flee regardless of the situation here,” said Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, who handles legislative affairs for Catholic Relief Services.
“When you’re suffering that kind of violence, you have to think, What are the odds? And you have to play the odds even if they’re not great,” she added.
And Archi Pyati, chief of policy and programs at the Tahirih Justice Center, said the downtick of asylum-seekers from January to February and March of this year indicates Trump’s policies may be having some impact.
“If there are people who are being deterred who are in horrible situations and do need safety, then we are violating international law and our obligations by deterring them from coming,” she said.
“Really desperate people will continue to come through,” she added.
Cartel-driven violence in Southern Mexico and Central America has forced at least a million people to flee their homes in recent years, according to a 2016 report from the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
And some advocates say Trump’s promise to increase deportations, especially of cartel and gang members, could result in more violence in these countries.
“Mass deportation from the U.S. back to these countries risks a repeated upsurge in gang crime,” researchers with the International Crisis Group concluded in a report published April 6, 2017.
And more crime would mean more displacement, which would likely mean more asylum-seekers looking for safety across the border.