Eduardo Verdugo/AP Photo

The number of unaccompanied children and families being caught crossing the U.S. southern border has dropped significantly.

In August, Border Patrol took into custody 3,141 minors traveling without a parent or guardian from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to a government report released this week. That's down from 5,501 in July and 10,622 in June and is the lowest number of any month this year.

Advertisement

The number of adults traveling with children apprehended was 3,295, the lowest since February.

Less than two months ago, Washington was in full-blown crisis mode over the number of Central Americans crossing the border. More than 21,000 kids and 29,000 family units were caught by Border Patrol in May and June alone, according to government data.

Advertisement

President Obama and members of Congress in both parties agreed that it was a major problem, but left town for August recess without agreeing on a solution. The story was pushed out of the news cycle—overtaken by coverage of conflicts in the Middle East, racial turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, and the president's frequent rounds of golf on Martha's Vineyard.

Even though the number of kids caught at the border has fallen, it's premature to declare the crisis over. It's too early to tell whether the decline will continue and there is no clear answer to why fewer kids are being picked up by authorities.

The Obama administration has credited its own initiatives for stemming the flow of Central American migrants. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a statement this week touted a public information campaign to discourage Central American parents from sending their kids north and an anti-human smuggling operation, which was made public in late July.

Advertisement

In reality, the steep drop is likely due to a combination of factors, according to Faye Hipsman, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. U.S. efforts to prevent border crossings have helped, but so too have stepped-up enforcement measures by Mexico. Authorities there have set up more checkpoints along major roads and are reportedly cracking down on the freight rail cars, known as "La Bestia," by catching and deporting migrants riding the train.

Seasonal factors could also have contributed to the drop off. Apprehensions of all undocumented immigrants tend to be higher in the spring, and lower in the summer and winter when temperatures are more extreme. There's a chance that the number of kids from Central America could spike again.

“I think that is possible, the degree to how high the bump is remains to be seen," Hipsman said.

Advertisement

There's also the issue of the kids who are already here. Congress did not change a 2008 anti-trafficking law that prevents expedited deportations of unaccompanied kids from Central America. That means the government still must find shelter for the kids and place them with sponsors. Between last October and the end of this August, over 66,000 unaccompanied kids have been caught at the border. Over 37,000 have been placed with a family member or foster parent as they await an immigration hearing.

Those kids could be stuck waiting for years before learning their fate. Immigration courts are already overburdened and the influx of child migrants has worsened the backlog. And it's not as if migration has completely stopped; the 3,100 Central American kids who were caught this August is almost as much as the number apprehended in the entire 2009 fiscal year, the first year the government started tracking the data.

Congress failed to pass Obama's $3.7 billion request this summer to provide more shelter space, immigration judges, and increased enforcement measures. The Department of Homeland Security is now asking for $1.2 billion to "pay our bills and continue to sustain the measures we put in place to prevent another spike in illegal migration," it said in a statement. It's unclear if Congress will pass that measure with only a handful of legislative days left before lawmakers return in October for campaign season.

Advertisement

And if Washington decides that the crisis is over, that could distract from efforts to improve impoverished and violent conditions in Central American countries that are the root causes of the migrant crisis. If those problems go unaddressed, the number of children and families making the treacherous journey north could grow again soon.

Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.