Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas. 

On June 2nd Barack Obama issued a memorandum announcing the creation of an interagency task force in response to what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation” on America’s southern border–a sudden influx in unaccompanied alien children. Law enforcement officials have apprehended almost 52,000 such children since October of last year. Some 38,000 of them, or about two-thirds, have entered the country in the Rio Grande Valley.

A few days later, the story got a boost when Breitbart Texas published a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of people, most of them children, who are being held in federal facilities while awaiting legal proceedings—or as Breitbart’s Brandon Darby put it, reasonably enough, a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of children “warehoused in crowded U.S. cells.” The images hit a nerve, and over the past two weeks the unaccompanied alien children have gained more attention as state and federal officials have been arguing over the causes of the crisis and the appropriate response.

The influx is, by any standard, a complex and rapidly evolving situation. It’s also an emotionally charged and politically contentious one. Thousands of extremely vulnerable children are involved. But so too are many more controversial people: a president whose policies may have spurred this crisis; the saber-rattling Republicans who have been fulminating about our porous border for years; the transnational drug-trafficking organizations that are helping these immigrants cross the border, and are surely aware of the disruption that the influx has caused; the constellation of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working in the Valley; and, of course, the parents of the children arriving recently, who are surely vulnerable in their own ways but who have either endangered the children in question—or accompanied them as regular, adult aliens.

All of that adds up to a pretty bewildering picture. But after spending the weekend reporting in the Valley, I came away with several conclusions. First of all, the influx of unaccompanied alien children makes a lot more sense if you think about it as part of a surge in illegal immigration from Central America. That surge began a couple of years ago and is due (at least in part) to widespread reports in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that the United States is not going to enforce immigration law against minors—that’s why so many of the immigrants in question are children. The more lurid and ominous reports about the migrants themselves are exaggerated. The influx is real, though, and markedly different from the illegal immigration that the United States has experienced in recent decades.

First, some context: most of the time, when Americans think about large-scale illegal immigration, we’re thinking about illegal immigration from Mexico. That may be a little simplistic, because only about half of unauthorized immigrants living here are actually from Mexico, but Mexico is the single biggest source of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, and it has certainly been the most visible one. In 1990, according to the Pew Research Center report linked above, the total number of unauthorized aliens in the United States was fewer than 3.5 million. In 2007, the unauthorized population peaked at 12.2 million. Some of the growth came from people who had entered the country legally, and became unauthorized immigrants over time, by overstaying their visas. Those who illegally crossed the border, however, were predominantly Mexican. In 2000 alone, for example, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 1.6 million Mexicans, and only 40,000 people from all other countries.

Recently, things have changed. Around 2007, illegal immigration from Mexico, which is usually motivated by economic reasons, slowed to a trickle; as the Great Recession descended on the United States, many unauthorized Mexicans actually went home. And then, two or three years ago, illegal immigration from other countries started to pick up. In fiscal year 2012, according to Border Patrol statistics (PDF), about 95,000 migrants from countries other than Mexico—OTMs, for short—were apprehended along the southern border. By fiscal year 2013, the number of OTMs apprehended jumped to about 149,000. This year’s figure is already larger, even though the fiscal year is only half over. Since October, almost 182,000 OTMs have been apprehended along the US-Mexico border.

About three-quarters of those apprehensions have taken place in the Rio Grande Sector. That is, as mentioned, where most of the unaccompanied children have appeared. Overall, about 12,000 of the 52,000 unaccompanied children in question are Mexican. Most of them, though, are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In other words, the influx of unaccompanied children is part of a broader spike in illegal immigration from those three countries. Significantly, many of the other OTMs apprehended have been traveling in family groups that include children. From a legal perspective, the unaccompanied children are in a different category than the accompanied ones.  If you’re trying to understand the situation, though, it helps to understand that there are also many children migrating with their parents.

So what’s going on? When Obama issued his memorandum, earlier this month, White House officials pointed to violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as the cause of the crisis. That makes sense—the countries in question are among the most dangerous in the world—but it can’t be the entire explanation. Conditions have been grim for a long time, and illegal immigration from those countries only started soaring in the past two years or so.

This crisis is partly the result of American politics and policy. In June 2012, Obama announced that his administration would decline to enforce immigration law against certain unauthorized immigrants who had been brought to the country as children, and lived in the United States more or less continuously since then. The policy was probably well-intentioned, and advocates cheered it as an effort to advance the goals of the DREAM Act, which was then languishing in a recalcitrant Congress. In looking through Guatemalan and Honduran news reports about the program, though, you’ll notice that they rarely mention the fine print about which minors, exactly, are eligible. It’s not that hard to imagine how people could get the impression that the United States had decided not to deport children, or why parents in these desperately poor and crime-riddled countries would be motivated to act in response.

And based on my reporting, I’d find it extremely hard to say that such an impression hasn’t been a crucial factor in the influx. Every person I talked to said something that corroborated it. A woman who owns a bar on the banks of the river said that for the past three weeks or so, immigrants have been turning up routinely and asking if she would call the Border Patrol for them. An agent, in turn, said that every child he’s talked to has memorized at least one American phone number, meaning that someone in the United States is expecting their arrival. “The word is spreading that women and children are not being deported,” said Ofelia de los Santos, one of the volunteers at a temporary shelter at the Sacred Heart in downtown McAllen.

“What would you do?” she continued—meaning, if you were a parent in Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador and you heard you had a chance to bring your child to the United States. “What would you do?” she asked again. Like many people I met, de los Santos expressed empathy for what the immigrants had done, and why. Her own father, she said, had immigrated illegally in 1945, when World War II created a demand for Mexican labor in the United States: “How can I now turn against these immigrants, who are doing what my dad did?”

Also clear, during my time in the Valley, was that the immigrants themselves are not particularly scary or threatening. They are not, for example, disease-infested. Tony Lopez, who was volunteering as a medic, said that half of the health problems he’s encountered thus far could be cured with Pedialyte. Other than dehydration, he added, the most common ailment among the migrants is seasonal allergies, which he was suffering from himself at the moment. Nor do they seem to be criminal. Many have reportedly hired smugglers to help them get across, and many Mexican smugglers work for that country’s powerful drug-trafficking organizations. But the relationship between the immigrants and the cartels seems to begin and end with that transaction. One local explained that in her experience, people who cross the border on cartel business usually dart through the brush on the banks of the river. They certainly don’t stroll up in broad daylight and ask if someone can call the authorities.

What’s happening in the Rio Grande Valley can fairly be described as a humanitarian crisis. It’s also, simultaneously, a situation with serious implications for America’s border security. As sympathetic as these immigrants are, their relatively sudden arrival in large numbers clearly requires a lot of attention from law enforcement–attention that used to be applied to other tasks. A Border Patrol agent who stopped to chat as I was sitting by the river made that clear. “What’s more important—being nice to these people, or protecting the American public?” he asked. The immigrants themselves don’t seem to be drug lords or human traffickers, he continued, but such criminals exist, and are surely aware that local law enforcement suddenly has its hands full.

Democrats have reacted to the humanitarian dimension of the story; Republicans are more focused on the security side. Both aspects of the situation should be addressed. The effort to do so would benefit from thoughtfulness, calm, and cooperation—between the parties, and between the state and federal government. Such qualities have been in short supply during recent rounds of debate about illegal immigration, though, and after several days of reporting, I found that to be an ominous aspect of the situation in itself. Compared to the situation unfolding in the Valley this summer, illegal immigration from Mexico looks more and more straightforward: an economic phenomenon, rising and falling in response to labor market conditions, without nearly so many children caught in the middle.  

(AP Photos | Eric Gay)