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Why the migrant crisis is happening now

Illustrated collage of migrants wading through a dark background with a chain link fence texture on top.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The crisis that's shocking the conscience of many Americans begins with Central American children and families crossing the southern border in unprecedented numbers.

The big picture: They're running from horrors and poverty at home toward a broken immigration system in the U.S. There's no single reason, but droughts, political instability, a booming U.S. economy, technological advancements and asylum backlogs all play a role.

Immigration experts and lawyers talk about "push and pull factors" — what drives migrants from their home countries and what attracts them to places such as the U.S.

The "push" factors:

Violence: Homicide rates have fallen slightly in recent years for Guatemala and Honduras, but El Salvador and Honduras maintained the two highest homicide rates in the world in 2016, according to the most recent UN data available. Guatemala was 14th on the list.

Poverty: The populations in Guatemala and Honduras have boomed, says Randy Capps, director of research at the Migration Policy Institute, but jobs are scarce. More than half of the population of Guatemala is below the national poverty line, according to a CIA report.

  • “There is a deadly symbiosis between poverty and gang violence,” Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Axios. Gangs gain more control, he said, because "they become the only viable business in town.”

Drought and starvation: Severe drought devastated crops last year in areas of Central American nations where families commonly live almost exclusively off the food they grow. Guatemala has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, according to the CIA.

Political unrest: Government corruption and protests in Central American nations have also encouraged people to leave, experts said.

  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced this year he would expel a UN-backed anti-corruption investigation that had uncovered a multimillion-dollar scheme involving a former vice president and other government officials.
  • Honduran lawmakers have also been pushing back against another international anti-corruption investigation targeting politicians and officials.

Coffee: A coffee rust — caused by a fungus that grows on coffee leaves — hit Central America hard in the early 2010s, particularly Guatemala. With the rust and falling coffee prices, jobs have disappeared and many coffee farmers and workers have decided to migrate.

The "pull" factors:

Economy: The U.S. economy is booming and has been for the last couple of years, which is always a draw for immigrants and asylum-seekers, according to immigration experts.

Safer, faster journey: Caravans of Central Americans headed to the U.S. drew global attention late last year, but also fundamentally changed the way migrants travel to the border.

  • Communication technology has made it easier for migrants to organize and warn each other of dangers.
  • Smuggler networks now have competition, and they have found safer, faster ways to move people across Mexico by using express bus routes.

The asylum system: Court decisions prevent migrant families and kids from being held in federal detention for longer than 20 days, which has led to many families quickly being released into the U.S., DHS officials have told reporters. Knowing it's likely they will be released can convince families to migrate now, experts said.

  • Longer-term adult ICE detention centers and child migrant shelters have been running out of space for more migrants, forcing border patrol to keep many families and children in overcrowded, temporary holding facilities beyond a 72-hour limit. The children's shelters are typically run by nonprofits and overseen by Health and Human Services.
  • The government sometimes uses ankle bracelets to monitor asylum-seekers once they are released into the U.S. while awaiting their court date, Capps said.
  • At the same time, long backlogs of immigration and asylum court cases give many immigrants years in the U.S. before there is a decision.

Trump's actions: The Trump administration has blocked or reduced legal means of coming to the U.S. by limiting the number of migrants who can come through ports of entry. These actions encourage families and kids to cross the border illegally to apply for asylum, multiple immigration experts and lawyers said.

  • Because of Trump’s threats, people feel they have to head for the U.S. now. “When you say things like ‘we’re going to build a wall,’ ‘we’re going to send the military to the border,’ that’s just a starting gun,” Johnson said.

The Trump administration has tried to use the overcrowded conditions to scare off migrants, Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under Obama, told Axios.

  • "But when you sit down and talk to a lot of these folks," he said, "being detained in the border patrol facility, it’s not exactly a deterrence compared to what they’ve faced."