While Migrant Encounters at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 2021 Were High, They Likely Do Not Set a New Record Level of Migration
WASHINGTON — With today’s official reporting that the Border Patrol encountered migrants crossing the southwest border without authorization 1.66 million times during fiscal year (FY) 2021 (a number that rises to 1.73 million when interactions at ports of entry are included), many have been quick to proclaim this a new all-time record, surpassing the 1.64 million apprehensions made 21 years ago. Yet the high number does not necessarily mean that more migrants were intercepted—or evaded the Border Patrol and illicitly entered the country—than was the case in FY 2000, as a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) commentary explains.
The fact that encounters represent events not individuals, high rates of repeat crossers during both periods, less detailed data gathering two decades ago and the Border Patrol’s capacity in recent years to apprehend a larger share of those attempting to cross illegally make a direct comparison between FYs 2021 and 2000 unfeasible, the commentary points out.
Also, today’s context is far different from the 1990s and early 2000s, including a changed composition of flows, a near-doubling in Border Patrol agents and greater use of detection technology. Then, illegal crossers were overwhelmingly single men from Mexico trying to evade detection as they crossed into the United States in search of work. Today’s migration is increasingly made up of Central American families and unaccompanied children as well as others who present themselves to Border Patrol agents, often seeking asylum. Changed border enforcement policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic also have incentivized people to keep crossing again and again, driving up the overall number of encounters.
The Border Patrol estimates it apprehended 43 percent of migrants crossing the border without authorization in FY 2000, suggesting more than 2.1 million unauthorized immigrants were able to enter the United States via the U.S.-Mexico border without being apprehended that year. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to publish an apprehension rate for all of FY 2021, recent media reports cited a Border Patrol figure of 400,000 migrants who were detected but not intercepted (a term known as “got-aways”). Got-aways represented 74 percent of estimated successful unlawful entries in FY 2018, so if that trend has held and the got-away figures cited for FY 2021 are accurate, there were about 540,000 successful unlawful entries during the past fiscal year—less than one-fourth the estimated 2000 total.
“There were more encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border during fiscal 2021 than any prior year. But because of repeat crossers and pandemic-era expulsion policies, it’s quite unlikely that 2021 represents record high numbers of individual migrants encountered or numbers that succeeded in illicitly entering the United States,” said MPI Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
There is no doubt that FY 2021 represents a significant high for border arrivals—reflecting both an increase from the last several years and diversification of nationalities. Migrants from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras went from representing 1 percent of apprehensions in FY 2008 to 22 percent in FY 2021.
Read the commentary here: www.migrationpolicy.org/news/2021-migration-us-mexico-border.
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.