U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion on immigration and border security at the U.S. Border Patrol Calexico Station before visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico, California, U.S., April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Donald Trump is fighting what he has described as a 'colossal surge' of migrants heading north from Central America © Reuters

Donald Trump’s threats over security at the US-Mexico border are the latest in a long pattern of politically charged rhetoric about the flow of immigrants from Latin America.

Mr Trump visited the southern border on Friday to see part of the wall being paid for by funds secured through his controversial declaration of a national emergency. He described a “surge” of migrants trying to make their way across the border, and said that Mexico is “now apprehending people by the thousands” at their southern border.

“It’s a colossal surge and it’s overwhelming our immigration system and we can’t let that happen,” he said.

As the US president vows to cut aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to punish them for sending migrants north — and to shutter the border, or slap tariffs on Mexican goods, if the situation is not resolved in a year — here is a closer look at the facts behind the situation at the border:

Is the US facing an immigration crisis?

US authorities say yes — especially migrants travelling as families and in caravans. US Customs and Border Protection reported a 300 per cent rise in family units apprehended at the border from October 2018 to the end of February compared with the same period in 2017-18. Families make up 60 per cent of all migrants apprehended on the Mexican border.

In all, almost half a million migrants were apprehended in 2018, a six-year high. Yet that is still half the levels of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Migration from Mexico is at a 40-year low — a trend which has pushed the overall number of illegal immigrants living in the US to its lowest level in a decade, according to the Pew Research Center. Central Americans now make up the bulk of immigrants.

In the past six months, migrants have also taken to travelling en masse for safety. Since October there have been 70 groups of 100 or more people, compared with 13 caravans in the same period the previous year, and just two the year before that.

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What are the US and Mexico doing about it?

The Department of Homeland Security this month ordered 750 CBP personnel to the US border under “emergency surge operations” and said that number could rise. It also promised to expand and escalate a plan to return migrants applying for asylum in the US to Mexico pending their court proceedings under a controversial so-called Remain in Mexico plan. So far, 551 migrants have been sent back under this plan, according to Mexican authorities.

The US president claims that Mexico is doing nothing to deter migrants. In fact, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the US since 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. Despite a change of government, the pace has remained similar to last year, when Mexico deported a total of 112,317 Central Americans, roughly half of them from Honduras.

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How much US aid does Central America get?

Excluding military aid, US assistance to Central America has dropped steadily over the past three years. In 2016, US aid was $750m; for 2020, the White House has asked for $400m.

The effectiveness of US aid to the region has come under the spotlight. As it has fallen, migrant numbers have risen — suggesting that Mr Trump’s plan could backfire.

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What is the impact of shutting the border?

The US-Mexico border is the busiest land border in the world. Bilateral trade is worth more than $600bn — the US exported $276bn in goods to Mexico in 2017 and imported $340bn. Bilateral trade has increased 700 per cent since 1992.

Mr Trump’s threat to close the border as soon as this week — which he later walked back to say he would do if Mexico does not cut off the flow of drugs and migrants within a year — prompted a pre-emptive outcry from US businesses, which have warned that cutting off the flow of people and goods could stymie some American companies’ operations and hurt workers.

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