The child migrant crisis that rocked the U.S. last summer might have stayed invisible except for a series of photos depicting children crammed into crowded Border Patrol cells.
You probably won't see those images again — for a number of reasons
The flow of unaccompanied minors will likely resume, but a series of steps taken by the Obama administration and regional governments will virtually ensure that the crisis won't be repeated, at least in the same way.
"We responded with decisive action, and the situation has improved significantly," Marsha Catron, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, told Fusion in a statement.
Whether the situation for migrants fleeing Central America has "improved" is debatable, but it certainly has changed. Here are some of the ways things will be different this time around:
Pushing the border further south
The number of Central American children venturing north this summer could drop by an estimated 39 percent compared to last year, according to one early estimate by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Part of the reason may be the obstacles they face before reaching the U.S. border.
Mexico has ramped up its deportations of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in the past year. In fact, those migrants made up 97 percent of the total number of people deported from Mexico in 2014.
Credit: Gabriella Peñuela
The vast majority of those deportations took place in Mexico's southernmost states, including Chiapas and Veracruz. While the country's border with Guatemala is still porous, this is evidence that Mexico is willing to play the role of enforcer to choke off the flow of migrants.
Some unaccompanied children are even stopped before they leave their home country. In Honduras last summer, an elite group of police — trained and funded by the U.S. — were commissioned as "Rescue Angels" to turn around minors trying to leave the country.
"The U.S. is working very hard both in Central America and Mexico to prevent Central Americans from arriving at our border in the first place," said Jennifer Podkul, a senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commission, an organization that works with migrants.
"I don't necessarily agree that's a sign of success," she continued. "I think success would mean that those countries are safe, so people don't have to leave in the first place."
The Obama administration would like to see security improve in the region, as well. The president's proposed 2016 budget includes $1 billion in aid for Central America, although it's unclear if Congress will approve it.
Avoiding mobs in Border Patrol stations
This is the image that set off the political firestorm over immigration last summer: dozens of children piled onto the floor in a dingy Border Patrol station, giving the impression that the agency was overwhelmed (and it was, according to agents).
This summer, the federal government will have greater capacity. Border Patrol now has temporary holding facilities for minors in McAllen, Texas, and Nogales, Arizona, the areas hit hardest by the crisis last summer.
While the centers are far from luxurious — the McAllen space looks like a Costco with cages — they are better than a Border Patrol station. Kids will have access to medical care, toys, and books.
Quicker transfers to caretakers
The other factor is the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once children are apprehended by Border Patrol agents, they're supposed to be transferred to ORR custody within 72 hours. From there, they'll be connected with a parent or guardian, which takes a month on average.
Last year, the office had a difficult time finding beds for the thousands of kids arriving at the border. As a result, Border Patrol stations became crowded with young people who should have been quickly relocated to a safer space.
"Border Patrol processed these kids relatively quickly, but then they had no place to put them," said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at WOLA.
Central American migrants in a tight spot (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)
There are signs ORR will be better equipped to deal with the influx this year.
First of all, they'll likely see fewer children. From Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, Border Patrol apprehended 10,123 children at the border, down from 16,558 apprehensions a year earlier. If the trend holds through the spring and summer — when more people typically cross — the workload will be more manageable for ORR.
When asked about ORR's bed count from last year compared with this year, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the refugee office, told Fusion they currently have "a lot more beds available."
He said there are 7,300 beds designated for minors and a contract with the Department of Defense to handle any potential overflow. At the start of the 2014 fiscal year, the refugee office had 3,000 beds at its disposal, according to Wolfe.
One phenomenon may persist: families being released
The Washington Office on Latin America expects fewer families will be caught at the border this year, but the anticipated drop isn't as significant as that of minors traveling alone.
The administration is gradually opening a new family detention center with 2,400 beds in Dilley, Texas, and it's expected to be fully operational by May. Opening the center sends a message to newcomers: even women and children will be locked up when they arrive in the U.S.
Immigrant rights groups rightfully abhor the return to family detention, but the move is more symbolic than a major shift in strategy.
Last year, nearly 67,000 families were apprehended at the border. Even if that figure decreases, the country's 3,000 or so family detention beds won't come close to housing everyone.
Instead, expect most families to receive a notice to appear in court, perhaps with an ankle bracelet to monitor a parent's whereabouts.
Free, but with a court date pending (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)
A federal court order on Friday could further strengthen protections for families. A district court judge issued a temporary injunction that stops the Obama administration from detaining asylum seekers at the border.
Keeping those migrants out of jail is good from a humanitarian standpoint, but could provide fodder for people looking to sensationalize a flood of migrants getting what have been characterized as "free passes" to stay in the U.S.
"There are more beds for them in detention centers," said WOLA's Isacson. "But the vast majority of family units are probably still going to be released pretty quickly."
Update, 12:30 p.m. ET: This piece was updated with additional statistics provided by the Administration for Children and Families on the number of beds available for minors.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.