Shifting Patterns and Policies Reshape Migration to U.S.-Mexico Border in Major Ways in 2023
The 2.5 million encounters of migrants occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year (FY) 2023 represent a new historic high, topping the prior year’s record, as has been widely noted since the recent release of year-end government statistics. Less attention has been given, however, to the very significant change in migration patterns evident in the data, with migrants from beyond Mexico and northern Central America representing 51 percent of irregular arrivals at and between ports of entry—for the first time ever.
And there has been even less recognition of how the statistics chronicle the shift in flows in response to the fundamental reshaping of U.S. border policies in the wake of the May 2023 lifting of the pandemic-era Title 42 expulsions policy. Who is coming to the Southwest border and how and where they are arriving have changed significantly with the Biden administration’s post-Title 42 policy adjustments and shifting on-the-ground realities over the last year, reshaping migrant arrivals unlike any year before.
In lifting the Title 42 public health order that permitted nearly 3 million expulsions over slightly more than three years, the administration issued an innovative set of policies seeking to discourage irregular crossings and encourage scheduled entries at ports of entry, using the CBP One app to schedule an appointment. This carrot-and-stick approach, which includes a rule that presumes people ineligible for asylum if they cross the border illegally, is part of a new chapter in border enforcement: A strategy to disincentivize irregular crossings while incentivizing orderly arrivals by creating or expanding access to legal pathways. These pathways include new and expanded immigration parole programs for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, permitting temporary stays in the United States and access to work authorization for more than 240,000 people to date. Applicants must have a U.S. sponsor and apply outside of the country for authorization to present themselves at a port of entry in the U.S. interior.
More migrants than ever before who are reaching the United States without prior authorization to enter are now arriving at ports of entry as a result of the parole programs and use of the CBP One app. The numbers arriving at ports of entry more than doubled from FY 2022, even as the Border Patrol had 160,598 fewer encounters of migrants crossing illegally in FY 2023 than the prior year—the result of policies to channel arrivals to ports of entry. In fact, without the increase at ports of entry, overall encounters in FY 2023 would not have surpassed those of the previous year.
The year was marked by other trends, including the continued increase in the irregular arrival of families, with family encounters surpassing those of single adult migrants in August and September. Encounters of families, in particular Mexicans, have surged since the end of Title 42, which had been applied primarily to Mexicans and northern Central Americans.
Figure 1. Changes in Southwest Border Migrant Encounters and U.S. Policies, FY 2023
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “Nationwide Encounters,” updated October 22, 2023, available online.
The changing trends pose new, complex challenges for all aspects of border enforcement operations and processing capacity, demonstrating that the current system is not equipped nor flexible enough. As a result, the ebb and flow of policy changes and migrant arrivals has the administration continually responding to immediate trends rather than building a proactive system that can anticipate and withstand fast evolving migration realities.
Nationalities from throughout the Western Hemisphere and Beyond
The historic predominance of encounters of nationals from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala was overtaken by arrivals from further in the Western Hemisphere—with Mexicans and northern Central Americans representing 49 percent of encounters during FY 2023 (see Figure 2). The 51 percent share coming beyond Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is up from just 12 percent three years ago.
This dominance of nationalities from beyond the immediate region south of the United States, while a slender majority, represents an important shift because of the processing challenges that diverse nationalities present to border authorities. Altogether, the government recorded about 800,000 apprehensions since Title 42 was lifted in May and removed or returned more than 300,000 migrants during the fiscal year.
Figure 2. Migrant Encounters at and between Ports of Entry, by Country of Origin, FY 2020-23
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations of data from CBP, “Nationwide Encounters,” updated October 22, 2023.
For migrants apprehended crossing between ports of entry, the Border Patrol has reverted to its pre-Title 42 authority under Title 8 to process arrivals, using consequences that include expedited removal. Such processing allows for quick return or removal of migrants who do not claim a credible fear of return to their country of origin. Diplomatic relations and agreements between the United States and governments in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala facilitate repatriation of nationals from these countries. But these measures are often less effective with individuals from other countries because the U.S. government may lack repatriation agreements or the accords may be quite limited. Given these challenges, the Biden administration negotiated, for the first time, removals to Mexico of non-Mexicans, including Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. The government also resumed removal flights to Venezuela, with which it had very limited diplomatic relations. Still, given the growing diversification of flows to the U.S.-Mexico border, the return to Title 8 processing has amplified existing challenges in returning and removing migrants to countries that lack repatriation agreements with the United States.
This diversification began in earnest in FY 2022. Venezuelans accounted for the highest number of irregular crossers in FY 2023 after Mexicans and Guatemalans, representing 10 percent of encounters between ports of entry (slightly more than 200,000). Colombian, Ecuadorian, Chinese, and Indian migrants also reached the Southwest border in larger numbers in FY 2023, albeit in much smaller totals than Venezuelans. Conversely, encounters of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans all decreased from FY 2022 to FY 2023.
Moreover, arrivals tend to concentrate in specific sectors based on nationality. The Tucson Border Patrol sector recorded a spike in arrivals unseen in years because of an influx in Mexican families, with 50 percent of its apprehensions of Mexicans. There were significant shifts by nationality in other busy sectors traditionally used to predominantly Central American encounters. The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector apprehended large numbers of Venezuelans and Chinese migrants; the Del Rio sector recorded 49 percent of all Cuban apprehensions. El Paso remained one of the most diverse sectors, seeing nationals from around the world; it also had the largest number of Venezuelan encounters, accounting for 36 percent of all Venezuelan apprehensions.
Rise in Families
The sharp increase in families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in FY 2023 represented another important shift, even as the numbers remained lower than the record levels seen in FY 2019. For decades, the Border Patrol chiefly intercepted single adults. Increases in apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children began in the mid-2010s, with the highest proportion of unaccompanied minors arriving in FY 2016 and of family units (the term used by CBP) in FY 2019.
The family encounters in FY 2023 were predominantly of Mexicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, with the numbers increasing steadily after the termination of Title 42. Nationals from these countries had been disproportionately subject to Title 42, with 68 percent of expulsions in FY 2023 of Mexicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans. Arrivals of Mexican families in particular have reached unprecedented levels. There were 87,000 apprehensions of Mexican family units in FY 2023—more than the total number of Mexican families encountered from 2016 through 2022.
Encounters of families and unaccompanied minors create unique challenges for border enforcement officials as they require differentiated accommodations from single adults and because children are a vulnerable population. Accordingly, the Border Patrol tries to process families and unaccompanied children as quickly as possible. To respond to some of the processing challenges that come with family apprehensions, the administration recently instituted the Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program, which subjects families to an expedited credible fear process in a nondetained setting. However, FERM processing remains minimal, with just a few thousand adjudications, compared to the more than 621,000 family unit encounters between ports of entry in FY 2023.
Changing Patterns and Places
While the number of migrant arrivals fell by 42 percent immediately following the end of Title 42, encounters of families and other migrants not easily amenable to removal under Title 8 have contributed to a steady increase in monthly flows since June (see Figure 3). Nonetheless, monthly post-Title 42 irregular crossings remained below the 252,000 high recorded in December 2022. This is largely the result of the creation or expansion of legal pathways aimed at directing migrants to ports of entry.
Figure 3. Monthly Migrant Encounters between Ports of Entry, by Processing Authority, FY 2023
Source: CBP, “Nationwide Encounters Title of Authority,” updated October 22, 2023, available online.
Since U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began using its CBP One app for processing of migrants in January 2023, arrivals to ports of entry have risen in tandem with increases in available appointments. Between FY 2022 and FY 2023, arrivals at ports of entry of migrants without prior authorization to enter the United States more than doubled, from 173,000 to 430,000. These arrivals represented 17 percent of overall border encounters during FY 2023, compared to 7 percent the prior year. During the same time, irregular crossings between ports of entry dropped by more than 160,000.
Though much criticized for its early glitches, the CBP One app has functioned as an effective scheduling tool that currently accepts 1,450 arrivals at ports of entry borderwide each day. From January through September, more than 278,000 individuals (16 percent of the nearly 1.8 million overall encounters during that period) had scheduled appointments through the app. The app has significantly shifted arrivals to ports of entry.
Still, CBP One affects migrants differently based on their ability to wait in Mexico for an appointment and the differences in how enforcement measures apply to them by nationality. Ninety-nine percent of Haitians arrived at a port of entry over the last year (see Table 1). Conversely, Venezuelans continued to significantly cross the border illegally, with just 25 percent presenting themselves at a port of entry. Venezuelans are the nationality with the second most beneficiaries of the parole programs and are consistently in the top three nationalities seeking CBP One appointments, though they remain a top nationality crossing illegally partially because, until recently, they have been less likely to be subject to enforcement measures. (The U.S. government resumed some repatriation flights to Venezuela in October.)
Table 1. Migrants’ Countries of Origin, by Share of Total Encounters and Share of Nationality Encountered at Ports of Entry, FY 2023
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations of data from CBP, “Nationwide Encounters,” updated October 22, 2023.
Because Central Americans are more likely than other nationalities to be removed by Mexican authorities, they may be less willing to wait for extended periods in Mexico and may feel more pressure to cross the border irregularly. In comparison, Mexicans are not subjected to Mexican enforcement and Venezuelans, who are sparingly removed from Mexico, are able to wait longer to receive a CBP One appointment.
FY 2023 marked a new chapter in border control pressures and further underscored the imperative for collaborative regional migration management approaches given the increasingly hemispheric nature of the migration flows. The overall numbers and shifting migration trends, in particular the diversification of nationalities and increasing shares of families and unaccompanied minors, have been exacerbating Border Patrol capacity and processing constraints. Alongside this, increasing arrivals to ports of entry underscore infrastructure limitations at ports of entry, which are operated by CBP.
To address these realities and the increasing share of asylum claims made by Venezuelans and other border arrivals, the United States must build out capacity at all levels of an immigration system that is presently unable to adequately respond.
Efforts to curb irregular migration and expand legal pathways are making a difference, but a significant infusion of new resources is needed to create the capacity required to fully realize the administration’s strategy and ultimately fundamentally realign migration flows. The administration recently requested $13.6 billion in emergency supplemental funding to address border security and the immigration system at large. This ambitious request would allow border authorities to more effectively manage changing migration flows and make migration management programs more robust.