Chart of monthly migration since 2011

The U.S. Border Patrol reported apprehending 18,762 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February. This is the lowest number of migrants encountered in any month since 2000, the first year for which Border Patrol makes monthly records available [PDF]. The sharpest drops were in the number of unaccompanied children (1,922, down from over 7,000 in November and December) and members of family units (3,124, down from over 16,000 in December).

Does this mean that, just days into his presidency, Donald Trump’s hardline policies are working?

It’s obviously too early to say that. But the promise of Trump’s coming crackdown has had at least a temporary effect. At the Mexico-Guatemala border in mid-February, migrant shelter personnel told us that they had been at capacity until mid-January, when the numbers of new arrivals dropped sharply. Some joked of an efecto Trump.

We’ll know whether this is a blip or a “new normal” when four factors become clearer.

  1. Was the sharp February drop a result of smugglers’ messaging? Migrant smugglers in Central America were urging potential customers to get to the United States before the new wall-building president’s arrival in office (“El Malo” or “El Feo,” the Washington Post says they called him). A smuggler-induced rush to beat an imagined January 20 deadline might explain the subsequent lull. But smugglers will come up with new sales pitches, so if this is the reason for the drop, numbers may increase again.
  2. Are children and families still crossing, but not turning themselves in? Until now, most Central American unaccompanied children and families were not seeking to evade Border Patrol when they crossed into the United States. They sought agents out and asked to be processed for asylum. It could be that, due to news of Trump’s crackdown, migrants—perhaps coached by their smugglers—are opting to avoid Border Patrol agents. If more are indeed avoiding apprehension, then the February apprehension statistic would naturally be lower.
  3. Are more Central Americans opting to stay in Mexico? A surprising number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants with whom we spoke in southern Mexico last month said they had no real desire to come to the United States. They just wanted to be anywhere safe from gang violence. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 20,000 of them will apply for asylum in Mexico this year, up from about 8,000 last year and about 5,000 in 2015.
    It will be interesting to see whether the monthly apprehension numbers from the Mexican government’s National Migration Institute go down as sharply as the Border Patrol’s did in February. If they stay the same, or don’t decline as sharply, that would tell us that Central Americans are still fleeing violence in great numbers—they’re just not trying to come to the United States.
  4. Is a seasonal increase coming? Though child and family migration doesn’t follow these patterns as closely, the winter months and the hottest summer months tend to be the lowest for northward migration. Late February is when migration starts to pick up again, and April through June are usually the heaviest months of the year. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens again this year. Shelter staff in southern Mexico said that arrivals had begun to increase again in mid-February.