October 27, 2023

IntelBrief: The Security Implications of Historic Levels of Migration at the U.S. Southwest Border

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco

Bottom Line Up Front

  • For the third straight year, a sharp increase in migrant and refugee crossings at the U.S. southern border has reached record-setting levels, with nearly 2.5 million encounters.
  • Economic and political upheaval, poverty, widespread and cyclical violence, and repression – all exacerbated by climate change – are among the primary drivers leading migrants to attempt the perilous journey to the U.S. southern border.
  • The Darién Gap, a sliver of jungle that is the only land route from South America into Central America and ultimately the U.S., has seen thousands of migrants crossing the treacherous terrain, generating millions of dollars in profits for entrepreneurs and organized criminal groups.
  • The lack of regularized legal pathways has increased the demand for smugglers and human traffickers to help migrants cross the border, increasing profits for criminal networks and heightening the potential risk of terrorists entering the country undocumented.

For the third year in a row, a sharp increase in migrant and refugee crossings at the U.S. southern border has reached record-setting levels. The total number of migrant encounters at the southwest border crossing was almost 2.5 million in the 2023 fiscal year, eclipsing the previous year's approximately 2.3 million encounters, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The historic migration numbers are staggering, as the number of encounters in 2023 is a nearly 446 percent increase from 2020.

Several factors are leading people, primarily from the Caribbean, Central, and South America, to attempt the journey to the United States. Economic and political upheaval in countries like Haiti and Venezuela, from which the majority of arrivals at the southern border hail, has led to massive exodus from those countries as the situations become increasingly untenable. In Haiti, gang violence has escalated alongside an increase in killings, kidnappings, and gender and sexual-based violence, including collective rape by gang members, in just the past few months, according to a September report by the UN Secretary-General. The violence and political turmoil have exacerbated several intersecting crises impacting the country: nearly half of Haitians are food insecure and humanitarian needs have skyrocketed in the past year, according to UN estimates. In Venezuela, an economic freefall due to financial mismanagement and U.S. sanctions targeting the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has further deepened the humanitarian crisis in the country. Hyperinflation, poverty, critical supply shortages, and food insecurity, coupled with high crime rates and documented repression and human rights abuses – including torture and sexual violence - by the country’s military and state intelligence services, have exacerbated the situation further. This has led to over 7.7 million people leaving the country since 2014; the demographic has quickly become one of the larger contingents of migrants arriving at the U.S. southwest border. Economic crises, poverty, widespread violence, and repression are also motivating many migrants from the Northern Triangle – comprised of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – to make the same journey. Nicaragua, a country that has long been utilized as a migratory springboard for Caribbean nations due to its lack of visa requirements, has itself seen thousands of migrants leave the country due to the repressive government of Nicaraguan President José Ortega. The Ortega regime has shut down nongovernmental organizations and universities and nearly eliminated civic spaces, as well as systematically and violently repressed the Catholic Church, which the government has labeled as subversive and “terrorists.” Throughout the region, many of the aforementioned factors have been exacerbated by climate change, which has negatively impacted food production, poverty and crime levels, and humanitarian conditions more broadly. Intensifying environmental factors also severely impact migrants en route, as many are increasingly exposed to harsh elements as they trek through open terrain, such as the Darién Gap land route.

The Darién Gap, a sliver of jungle that is the only land route from South America into Central America and ultimately the U.S., has seen thousands of migrants crossing the treacherous terrain. There are no roads, bridges, cellphone service, or other aspects of infrastructure in the roughly 60-mile stretch of jungle terrain, which is mostly inhabited by indigenous communities and criminal organizations – the latter benefiting from the lack of government presence. Despite the dangers of the route, it has become a key passageway for migrants from South America; more than 500 thousand people are on pace to cross the gap by the end of 2023 – double the total in 2022, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The increase in migrants utilizing the Darién Gap has led to an increase in profits for both underground smugglers and human traffickers, as well as opportunistic businesses operating in the open, generating an estimated millions of dollars a year in profits. Local leaders in Colombia offer migrants “guide and security” packages, taking advantage of the lack of government presence and will to intervene in the operations. A large and powerful drug-trafficking group, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces, or the Gulf Clan, hovers over the business – reportedly charging a tax before migrants enter the jungle with guides. It is estimated the Gulf Clan earns over 30 million dollars a year from the migration industry, according to Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

Lack of regularized legal pathways and crackdowns on migrants has only increased the demand for smugglers and human traffickers to help migrants cross the border. This heightened demand has transformed what was once a scattered network of freelance “coyotes” – individuals who smuggle immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border – into a multi-billion-dollar international business, enriching organized criminal groups, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. This reality only further intensifies cyclical violence and conflict which forces migrants and refugees to flee their countries of origin. Further, the lack of regularized legal pathways and the seeming elusive nature of sustainable reform and coherent policies in the United States – stymied instead by political dysfunction and gamesmanship at the national, state, and even local levels – potentially increases the risk illicit actors, including terrorists, may attempt to cross the border. Although the severity of this risk is highly contested, a “growing number of individuals” on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist are trying to enter via the U.S. southern border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. As of July 2023, that number was 160. A leaked but unverified memo from the CBP office in San Diego, warned that operatives with links to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), or Hezbollah might try to enter the U.S. via the southern border; yet, the CBP has declined to confirm the authenticity of the memo and downplayed this threat in a statement to Voice of America news agency. “CBP has seen no indication of Hamas-directed foreign fighters seeking to make entry into the United States,” a CBP spokesperson said. As crackdowns and diminishing legal pathways drive a larger number of migrants to flee untenable situations, the increased focus on stopping all migrants will strain available resources and hinder the ability to effectively apprehend illicit actors and terrorists. The issue of immigration, which has plagued U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and is one motivation that led to a recalibration of relations with Venezuela, is likely to be a key factor in the upcoming 2024 U.S. general election. Yet, both the lack of sustainable solutions at the southwest border and the absence of political will in the U.S. Congress to prioritize and enact them, coupled with migrant flows that show no signs of abating, will likely only compound the profound security and humanitarian situation.