Child Migrants
Central American immigrants watch television at the Hogar de la Misericordia (Home of Mercy) shelter in Arriaga, Mexico, Aug. 8, 2014. Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez

U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive action on deportation relief may have been the most groundbreaking event in immigration this year. But by and large, 2014 was the year of another immigration issue that stirred up just as much controversy: the influx of unaccompanied Central American children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The child immigrant crisis has mostly faded from headlines and political debates, as the number of unaccompanied Central American immigrant children apprehended at the border has declined from the crisis levels reached in June and July. But immigration analysts and government officials say it could bubble up again in 2015. The Obama administration has fired on all cylinders to ensure that it can respond to another surge, but critics say one of the most crucial aspects of dealing with the crisis -- namely, getting immigrants access to lawyers -- still hasn’t been settled.

The influx of immigrants, mainly unaccompanied children and family units from Central America, flooded shelters and Border Patrol processing stations in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley during the spring and summer. Gang violence, domestic abuse, economic calculations, rumors of leniency and the availability of smugglers promising guidance to the U.S. all fueled the flow out of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three countries with some of the world’s highest murder rates. Children and families already fleeing violent conditions endured treacherous journeys through Mexico, often on the perilous northbound freight train known as La Bestia (or The Beast).

By August, the numbers were already starting to decline, with 3,141 unaccompanied children and 3,295 families apprehended at the border that month, down from 10,622 children and 12,772 families in June. By October, the figures fell below 2013 levels. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson attributed the decline to aggressive campaigns the administration launched to capture smugglers, warn Central Americans of the dangers of immigration, detain families caught at the border and expedite deportations. Mexico’s government also cracked down on illegal immigration, deporting tens of thousands of Central Americans from the country.

The political dust also settled in the fall. Congressional Republicans initially blocked emergency funding for the crisis on demands for a legal amendment to allow Border Patrol officers to send Central American unaccompanied minors back if they didn’t express a fear for their lives. And last month, Republicans directed their fury toward President Obama’s executive action. By the end of 2014, the child immigrant crisis had faded from the national conversation.

But Johnson has repeatedly acknowledged that he was concerned about another influx in 2015, and analysts say it is definitely a possibility. “The underlying drivers are still in place,” Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute’s immigration policy program, said, referring to violence levels in Central America that have gone unabated and a lack of legal channels for immigrants to come to the United States. “Historically, there is a calendar cycle that we tend to see illegal flows from Mexico declining in the fall and winter and picking back up in the spring.”

The border surge elicited starkly different calls to action from both sides of the political aisle, with some calling for immigrants to be deported en masse while others appealed for amnesty and asylum. But many analysts said the group of border crossers were a mix of refugees with legal claims to protection in the U.S., while others were economic immigrants who weren’t entitled to protection. “The way to reconcile that tension is to have a fair and complete process of adjudication to figure out which kids deserve protection and which don’t,” Rosenblum said.

The federal government, over the past few months, has moved to do all the things it scrambled to do this summer in response to the influx, boosting funding for shelters, schools, immigration courts and border security as part of the $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress passed this month. On top of that, the White House announced last month it was launching an in-country refugee processing program for children in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

But at the local level, it’s still been a struggle to get immigrants access to legal representation and improve the staggering court backlog of cases. Data from the Executive Office of Immigration Review last month also showed that immigration courts were still under severe stress, holding more than 800 hearings a week. Ninety-four percent of children issued removal orders underwent their hearings without an attorney, the data said.

The government’s general approach has been “pretty weighted toward prevention rather than protection,” Rosenblum said, noting that the $351 million in funding for federal immigration courts -- a $36 million boost from last year -- was still far outstripped by spending on border enforcement. “If you look at growth on enforcement spending vs. growth for adjudication spending, that’s exactly why system has become so backlogged,” he said.