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Despite a fortified border, migrants will keep coming, analysts agree. Here's why.

Border Patrol picks up a group of people seeking asylum from an aid camp near Sasabe, Arizona, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.
Justin Hamel
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Border Patrol picks up a group of people seeking asylum from an aid camp near Sasabe, Arizona, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.

The U.S. southern border is as fortified as ever and Texas is carrying out its own enforcement to stop people from crossing illegally, yet observers and analysts agree on this: migrants not only will continue to come, but their numbers will likely increase in the coming months.

The expected surge can be attributed not only to seasonal migration patterns, but an increase of people displaced by war, poverty, and climate factors in all continents.

And why do these analysts say this?

They keep a close eye on the Darién Gap in Panama and the borders between Central American countries, two key points to gauge the number of people venturing up north.

"In most countries (outward) migration has increased ... particularly in Venezuela, and that's not really reflected yet in the U.S. numbers," said Adam Isacson, an analyst of border and migration patterns at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington D.C.

Despite Mexico's cracking down on migrants, Isacson said people are still making their way up north, even if they need to pause for months at different points during their journey.

"There must be a huge number of people from Venezuela bottled up in Mexico right now," he said.

The Darién Gap serves as a good barometer for migration flows.

This 100-mile-long tropical jungle between Colombia and Panama has claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Yet the dangers at this jungle are not a deterrent, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst with this organization. The majority of people migrating are from Venezuela.

"The reason why I referred to Venezuelans in particular is because they represent a key challenge for removals from Mexico and from the United States to Venezuela," Ruiz Soto said.

Mexico and the U.S. had been flying Venezuelan migrants back to the South American country. However, earlier this year, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stopped accepting flights from the U.S. in response to economic sanctions imposed by the Biden administration.

Panama reported a 2% increase in crossings through the Darién Gap in February compared to the previous month.

Aerial view showing migrants walking through the jungle near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023.
LUIS ACOSTA / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Aerial view showing migrants walking through the jungle near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023.

What the numbers show

Analysts are projecting the increase in the remaining months of the fiscal year, even though U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 2.2% decrease in encounters with migrants along the Southern border in March. An encounter is every time a migrant is picked up by immigration authorities.

These numbers are consistent with cyclical patterns of illegal crossings that dip in the winter months, followed by more migrants attempting to get to the U.S. as warm weather arrives, said Ruiz Soto.

In a statement, CBP Spokesperson Erin Waters said the agency remains vigilant to "continually shifting migration patterns" amid "historic global migration."

Waters said the agency has also been partnering with Mexico to curb the flow of people migrating to the U.S.

Mexico has commissioned its National Guard to patrol its borders with Guatemala and the U.S.

"CBP continues to work with our partners throughout the hemisphere, including the Government of Mexico, and around the world to disrupt the criminal networks who take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants," Waters said.

Where are migrants crossing the border?

For the last few months, more migrants are attempting to cross through Arizona instead of Texas, according to CBP.

In 2023, the El Paso and Del Rio sector in Texas saw more crossings than any other place across the 2,000-mile Southern border. But this year the Tucson sector in Arizona has seen a 167% increase in crossings, more than any other.

Tiffany Burrow, operations director at Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, an assistance organization for newly border crossers in Del Rio, said she has seen the shift.

"It's empty," Burrow said, pointing to her organizations' office. "There are no migrants."

In March, she helped only three migrants after they were released by CBP pending their court date. In December, they helped 13,511 migrants.

Burrow said that's how migration works — it ebbs and flows.

"We have to be ready to adapt," Burrow said.

Texas Department of Safety Troopers patrol on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Eric Gay / AP
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AP
Texas Department of Safety Troopers patrol on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Texas' role

Burrow and other immigrant advocates are closely observing Texas' ramping up of border enforcement.

In 2021 Gov. Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star initiative and deployed the Texas National Guard. Last year the state started lining up razor wire in sections of the Rio Grande.

Texas is also asking the courts to be allowed to implement a law passed last year by the Republican-controlled legislature, known as SB4, which requires local and state police to arrest migrants they suspect are in the country illegally.

It might be too early to know if all these efforts will have an impact on migration patterns, analysts said, considering that Texas saw the highest number of illegal crossings last year.

But, Mike Banks, special advisor on border matters to Abbott, said the state's efforts are fruitful.

Texas has spent over $11 billion in this initiative.

"The vast majority of the United States' southern border is in Texas, and because of Texas' efforts to secure the border, more migrants are moving west to illegally cross the border into other states," said Mike Banks in a statement to NPR.

Ruiz Soto, from the Migrant Policy Institute, said the impact of Texas' policies on arrivals "is likely to be minimal over the long term."

Carla Angulo-Pasel, an assistant professor who specializes in border studies and international migration at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, said that even with Texas' policies in place, migrants are likely to continue to cross.

"You can't claim, as much as I think Gov. Abbott wants to claim, that Operation Lone Star is going to somehow mean that you're going to see less numbers in Texas because that hasn't held true," Angulo-Pasel said. "We could also argue that things are going to progressively get more and more as the spring months progress."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán (SARE-he-oh mar-TEE-nez bel-TRAHN) is an immigration correspondent based in Texas.
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