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Record-Breaking Migrant Encounters at the U.S.-Mexico Border Overlook the Bigger Story
October 2022

Record-Breaking Migrant Encounters at the U.S.-Mexico Border Overlook the Bigger Story

Photo of individuals re-entering Mexico after U.S. expulsion
Jerry Glaser/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Headlines focused on the record-breaking nature of the nearly 2.4 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year (FY) 2022 overlook the much bigger story that this figure tells us: Migrant and asylum seeker flows have become increasingly hemispheric in nature and as a result, U.S. enforcement policies long directed toward arrivals from Mexico and Northern Central America are misaligned—underscoring the need for new regional approaches.

For the first time in history, more Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans were encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during FY 2022 than migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The year also saw significant arrivals of Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Haitians, and from countries further afield, including Ukraine, India, and Turkey.

While U.S. immigration authorities carried out 2.38 million migrant encounters (a term encompassing apprehensions and expulsions) at the southwest border in FY 2022, the statistic includes significant numbers of migrants who attempted to enter the United States multiple times without authorization. This recidivism has been partially incentivized by the general lack of consequences that is the result of the Title 42 expulsions policy implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even accounting for repeated entries, however, the number of unique encounters in the just-concluded fiscal year surpassed the previous record of 1.64 million apprehensions in FY 2000. Without a doubt, the arrivals, which represent a 37 percent increase over FY 2021, have overwhelmed processing capacities, federal infrastructure, and border communities.

Failing to understand the complex story behind these trends not only stymies the development and implementation of policies to better manage chaotic migration flows, but also misses the opportunity to inform the creation of regional relationships and policies that can address the new and shared realities of large-scale migration that increasingly begins much further south than Mexico or Northern Central America.

The Story Behind the Numbers

While public attention will focus on the record-breaking numbers, equally as important is the change in composition of migrants arriving at the U.S. border. These diversifying flows are a result of a complex mix of push factors and U.S. and regional policies.

After nearly a decade of migration overwhelmingly from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, flows to the United States from well beyond these traditional sending countries are increasing. Migrants from beyond Mexico and Northern Central America accounted for 43 percent of those encountered between ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in FY 2022—compared to 4 percent just five years ago.

Figure 1. Migrant Encounters between Ports of Entry, by Nationality, FY 2008-22

Note: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses the term “encounters” to account for apprehensions under Title 8 and expulsions under the Title 42 public-health order that was implemented in March 2020 shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations based on data from U.S. Border Patrol, “U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector,” accessed October 5, 2022, available online; CBP, “Southwest Land Border Encounters,” updated October 21, 2022, available online.

There were 571,159 encounters of Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans arriving between ports of entry during FY 2022—more than the 520,602 encounters of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These newer countries of origin have strained diplomatic ties with the United States, making established practices for the return of their nationals inoperative. The changing trend is the result of simultaneous increases in Venezuelan arrivals and decreases in Honduran and Guatemalan encounters over the last four months of the fiscal year. Reflecting this new reality, migrants’ top five countries of origin were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, and Venezuela, together comprising 71 percent of all encounters between ports of entry in FY 2022.

Figure 2. Monthly Migrant Encounters at U.S.-Mexico Border, by Nationality, FY 2022

Source: MPI tabulation of data from CBP, “Southwest Land Border Encounters.

Shifting Realities and Capacities at the Border

Not only are migrants coming from further away, but their points of arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border also have shifted extensively and vary by nationality. This has required immigration authorities to shift personnel and adjust capacities along the border, especially in Border Patrol sectors least equipped to process non-Mexican migrants. Approximately 57 percent of all migrant encounters between ports of entry in FY 2022 occurred in the Rio Grande Valley, Del Rio, and Yuma sectors. After years of much lower activity, the Del Rio sector surpassed the Rio Grande Valley sector, observing the largest number of encounters. Yuma, however, experienced the highest increase (170 percent) between FY 2021 and FY 2022. Moreover, the top nationalities encountered in these three sectors demonstrated the changing composition of flows. Hondurans ranked first in the Rio Grande Valley sector, Cubans in Yuma, and Venezuelans and Mexicans were encountered at nearly the same rate in Del Rio.

Figure 3. Migrant Encounters between Ports of Entry, by Border Sector, FY 2019-22

Source: MPI tabulation of data from CBP, “Southwest Land Border Encounters.”

The Push and Pull Factors Driving Increasingly Hemispheric Migration

These changes in the volume and national diversity of irregular migration toward the United States have been triggered by compounding episodes of economic instability and political repression in Latin America and the Caribbean, coupled with pull factors in the United States that include growing labor demand. Since 2015, more than 7 million Venezuelans have emigrated from their economically and politically troubled country, the majority initially settling in neighboring countries. Today, growing numbers are transiting South and Central America through Mexico and to the United States. Similarly, Nicaraguans who traditionally have migrated to Costa Rica are now also emigrating northward, joining longstanding migration patterns to the United States from Mexico, Northern Central America, and Cuba.

Beyond the push factors in origin countries and the magnet of a U.S. labor market that has numerous job openings unfilled by domestic supply, years-long waits for asylum decisions and uneven implementation of other migration policies in the United States and the hemisphere also serve as a catalyst for growing migration.

The unintended consequences of policy change are illustrated by Title 42, the public health order that authorizes CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to expel some migrants to Mexico or their country of origin based on COVID-19 transmission concerns.

Implementation of Title 42

Approximately 45 percent of all migrant encounters at and between ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in FY 2022 were subject to Title 42 expulsion proceedings, compared to 61 percent the prior year. But which migrants are subject to expulsion largely depends on their nationality, repatriation agreements between the United States and migrants’ country of origin, and agreements with Mexico to accept the return of some non-Mexican nationals. For example, 86 percent of Mexican encounters were subject to expulsion in FY 2022, compared to less than 2 percent of encountered Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans. The lack of U.S. repatriation agreements and strained diplomatic ties with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, coupled with political repression and deep economic difficulty in those countries, makes it nearly impossible to safely return migrants there.

Changes in how Title 42 has been implemented and the shifting composition of flows (with lower shares of Mexican and Northern Central American encounters) help explain the proportional decrease in expulsions over time. It remains to be seen how the October 13 announcement that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would begin expelling Venezuelans to Mexico under Title 42 will affect overall expulsion rates. The policy seeks to reduce irregular entries by Venezuelans and promote a new legal pathway for up to 24,000 qualifying Venezuelans who would be preapproved for humanitarian parole at airports.

Figure 4. Share of Migrant Encounters Subject to Title 42 and Title 8 Proceedings, by Country of Nationality, FY 2022

Notes: Migrants who are placed into Title 8 proceedings can be removed under expedited removal, taken into detention and subsequently removed, or be released temporarily into the United States while their removal cases (along with possible asylum claims) are adjudicated. Those who are placed under Title 42 are processed for immediate or delayed expulsion, often within the same day that they are encountered. Migrants who are removed under Title 8 are temporarily or permanently prohibited from entering the United States and can face criminal sanctions for attempted re-entry, while those subject to Title 42 are not.
Source: MPI tabulations of data from CBP, “Southwest Land Border Encounters.”

At the same time, migrants subject to Title 42 are expelled without immigration charges, which incentivize some to attempt irregular re-entry multiple times. The result has been a surge in recidivism rates, which now stand at 26 percent—up from 7 percent in FY 2019. Title 42 has stoked a significant churn of Mexican encounters, and the new DHS policy likely will result in increased attempts by Venezuelans to enter irregularly.

Pivoting to a New Strategy

This year of record-breaking border encounters—coming on the heel of surges in 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2021—only underscores the reality that a new strategy is needed. Managing arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border requires far more than just continuing to add new enforcement resources and authorities.

Given unabating economic instability and political repression, as well as decreasing resilience to climate events, it is likely that the new flows seen from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and elsewhere will continue, at least in the near term. In addition to border enforcement, to better manage migration, the United States must therefore:

  1. Reform its border asylum processing to ensure fair but swifter adjudications by scaling up processing capacity. The final asylum rule recently implemented by the Biden administration, which thus far has enrolled only very small numbers of cases, holds the potential to revamp asylum processing at the border if scaled. This could put an end to years’ long waits for decisions that keep asylum seekers in limbo and encourage the filing of unwarranted claims as well as add to massive backlogs in immigration courts.
  2. Expand temporary legal employment pathways for Central American workers to help channel some flows from irregular to regular ones, reducing pressure at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  3. Work with countries in the Americas to strengthen humanitarian protection and migration management systems by investing in technical assistance and institutional capacity.
  4. Invest in sustainable and transparent development in Mexico and Central America that over time can reduce migration drivers.
  5. Strengthen regional cooperation among law enforcement agencies to combat migrant smuggling networks and promote governance and anti-corruption efforts.

Governments across the Americas are making gains on some of these objectives. For example, in June, the United States and 20 other countries signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection to improve regional migration management—including access to asylum, new legal pathways, and immigrant integration. But more concrete commitments are needed, as are efforts to track and evaluate outcomes.

While so much of the focus in the United States is, of course, on chaotic border arrivals at the southwest border, rising migration is also affecting other parts of the hemisphere. Record flows of extracontinental migrants through the Darien Gap jungle that connects Colombia to Panama foreshadow increases in migration through Central America and Mexico. The 28,000 Venezuelan migrants who trekked through the deadly jungle in August were mostly en route to the United States; with more than 34,000 Venezuelans recorded at the Darien Gap in September, it is very likely that many of them will be reaching the U.S.-Mexico border soon.

Costa Rican and Mexican authorities have observed similar increases in migration of Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans. Despite toughening migration enforcement policies, regional authorities have been unable to significantly reduce irregular migration, in part because they face similar difficulty as the United States in repatriating migrants to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Mexico’s implementation in January of visa requirements for Venezuelans, for instance, decreased arrivals via air for a few months but irregular flows via land rose steadily after May. More importantly, existing regional approaches have failed to improve local conditions and protection mechanisms have not expanded enough to give migrants a reasonable alternative to irregular migration and halt their onward movement.

There are no easy or short-term solutions to these increasingly complex and hemispheric migration patterns and challenges. But the recurring surges at the U.S.-Mexico border that have occurred under multiple administrations and enforcement-first strategies demonstrate that enforcement alone cannot succeed (or be sustainable). If governments focus on the reality behind the topline encounter numbers, they can proactively cooperate on policies that over time can make migration more safe, orderly, and regular—and can also prepare the region for future migration challenges.

The author thanks Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh for her research assistance.