E.g., 11/28/2023
E.g., 11/28/2023
Crisis at the Border? Not by the Numbers
BorderPatrol UAC water
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Monthly numbers of migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border have become a major preoccupation of the Trump administration. The President reportedly treats the numbers as a gauge of his administration’s effectiveness at securing the border. Any rise in the numbers undercuts for him a central promise of his presidency.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data issued June 6 show that for the third straight month, apprehensions in May—that is, the number of migrant arrests of those illegally crossing the border between ports of entry—increased 178 percent over the same month a year earlier. This follows increases of 207 percent in March and 244 percent in April from those months in 2017. The administration and its allies contend that these increases represent a crisis at the border that demands toughened border policies and major additional resource infusions, especially construction of a border wall.

What has been lost in the discussion is that the 2017 apprehensions are the outliers, and so measuring current activity at the border against that atypically low period ignores the fact that the current apprehensions picture largely mirrors earlier years.

What made 2017 unusual? There were significant reductions in attempted illegal entries after the November 2016 general election and in the early months of the new administration as would-be migrants seemingly held back in wait-and-see mode, given the Trump campaign’s muscular focus on immigration enforcement. What became dubbed the “Trump effect” has predictably waned, however, given the deeper push-pull forces that propel illegal migration.  

As a result, this year’s apprehension numbers for March, April, and May are largely comparable to the same months in 2013, 2014, and 2016. (In 2015, apprehensions dropped, partly due to stepped-up enforcement against Central American migrants by Mexican authorities.) The 40,344 apprehensions recorded in May 2018 are continuing the downward trend that has emerged over the past 18 years. And that monthly total is more than 100,000 apprehensions less than the level recorded in May 2000—the peak year of apprehensions, at more than 1.6 million. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions, FY 2000-18

Note: 2018 Year to Date includes apprehensions for the first eight months of FY 2018 (October 2017 to May 2018).

Sources: U.S. Border Patrol, "U.S. Border Patrol Monthly Apprehensions (FY 2000 - FY 2017)," accessed June 4, 2018, www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2017-Dec/BP%20Total%20Monthly%20Apps%20by%20Sector%20and%20Area%2C%20FY2000-FY2017.pdf; U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), "Southwest Border Migration FY2018," updated June 6, 2018, https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration.

What is different about apprehensions in recent years, but particularly in 2017 and 2018, is the proportion of migrants that are either traveling as unaccompanied children or as families consisting of both adults and children. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, 25 percent of migrants apprehended were individuals traveling as families, compared to 3 percent in FY 2012. Overall, 39 percent of those apprehended in FY 2017 and 36 percent of those apprehended thus far in FY 2018 have been either families or unaccompanied children, compared to 10 percent in FY 2012 (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Family and Unaccompanied Minor Apprehensions as Share of Total Apprehensions, FY 2012-18

Note: 2018 Year to Date includes apprehensions for the first eight months of FY 2018 (October 2017 to May 2018).

Sources: CBP, "United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016," updated October 18, 2016, www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/fy-2016; CBP, "Southwest Border Migration FY2017;" CBP, "Southwest Border Migration FY2018."

It is particularly notable that overall migration flows remain at such lows now, while the U.S. economy is strong. The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8 percent, the lowest since 2000, while jobs have been continually added to the economy for a record 92 months. Yet border apprehension numbers remain low, indicating that illegal immigration, in particular from Mexico which has historically been largely driven by demand from U.S. employers, has lessened. Instead, the flows we are seeing are dominated by those seeking humanitarian protection.

In addition to migrants apprehended seeking to cross illegally between ports of entry, many of those traveling to the U.S. border—especially families—are turning themselves in at designated ports of entry (POEs) and often asking for asylum. These numbers are separate from apprehension numbers but have in recent years become another important indicator of changing flows at the border. In FY 2017, 28 percent of all families attempting to enter the United States did so by presenting themselves at POEs. In the first eight months of FY 2018, that share has risen to 37 percent. In comparison, 29 percent of adult individual migrants presented at POEs in FY 2017, and 23 percent have done so thus far in FY 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border is almost double the number in 2000, and the Trump administration continues to press for the hiring of 5,000 additional agents, even as total apprehensions in recent years have been at lows comparable to those of the mid-1970s, when there were about 1,400 agents at the Southwest border (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Southwest Border Apprehension and Border Patrol Staffing Levels, FY 1975-2017

Sources: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, "Border Patrol Expands But Growth Rate After 9/11 Much Less Than Before, Division Between North/South Border Little Changed," updated April 4, 2006, http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/143/; U.S. Border Patrol, "Border Patrol Agent Nationwide Staffing by Fiscal Year," accessed June 4, 2018, www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2017-Dec/BP%20Staffing%20FY1992-FY2017.pdf.

In recent months, amid the Trump administration’s relentless narrative of a border in crisis, the National Guard has been deployed to the border and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dispatched a contingent of National Park Service and U.S. Park Police officers to assist enforcement efforts. The President continues to demand a border wall and additional Border Patrol agents. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a zero-tolerance policy mandating federal prosecution of all first-time crossers, which has had the result of forcing family separation, as children cannot be held in criminal incarceration.

This willful misreading of the trends at the border is belied by the most recent apprehension statistics, which call into question whether an expenditure of billions of dollars on barriers and more enforcement personnel would be an effective use of taxpayer resources. The statistics provide the latest evidence of near-historic lows in illegal border crossings and a change in the flows that call for deciding asylum cases in a timely, fair fashion, not policies such as the family separation ones that have sparked outrage and concern.