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A Year in Review: Counter-Cyclical Trends in Border Crossings Continue

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released its border data for September 2021 on October 22, 2021, wrapping up a fiscal year that saw record high numbers of border encounters in all reported demographic categories. Total encounters at the border for the year reached nearly 1.66 million, as seen in Figure 1, which tops the previous record of 1.645 million from FY2000. However, further details in the data show a continuation of several recent trends, including high rates of repeated attempted crossings by individuals, higher numbers of single adults even as families continue to arrive, and a further diversification of countries of origin, though the highest number of single country encounters this fiscal year came from Mexico. The data also demonstrates the Biden administration’s continued reliance on Title 42 to manage migration at the border, with the number of Title 42 expulsions nearly double that of Title 8 apprehensions.

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Figure 1: Total Southwest Border Encounters (FY1986-FY2021)

Recidivism Drives Up Totals

Though much of the news coverage focused on this year’s record high numbers, immigration researchers and journalists have also taken a more nuanced approach to the numbers, pointing out the complex nature of current migration trends at the U.S.-Mexico border. Focusing on the effect of recidivism, researchers underscore that reported apprehensions represent events, not individuals, and note that the recidivism rate from May to September 2021 (the only months in which those rates were officially reported) ranged from 25-38%. CBP’s September 2021 press release also underscored the high rate of repeated crossings, noting that “the large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, which means that total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border.” According to CBP, the rate of recidivism overall in FY2021 was 27%, up 1 percentage point from 26% in FY2020, meaning that the number of unique individuals encountered this fiscal year is likely closer to 1.2 million. From FY2015 to FY2019, recidivism rates dropped steadily, as seen in Figure 2, from 14% in FY2015 to 7% in FY2019, meaning that the 27% rate in repeat encounters this year is almost four times that of just two years ago. The fact that recidivism rates rose in FY2020 and FY2021 makes this a continuing trend, likely driven by the lack of significant consequence or opportunity costs for repeated crossings under Title 42, which repatriates migrants to Mexico within a short period of time, permitting additional attempts. The high recidivism rate this fiscal year also contributed to the overall higher number of encounters this year, as well as other trends outlined in this blog, such as the increase in encounters with Mexicans, the increase in single adults more generally, and the large numbers of expulsions under Title 42.

Figure 2: Recidivism Rate (FY2015-FY2021)

High Numbers from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, but Further Diversification of Nationalities Encountered

This year, the highest number of encounters from a single country came from Mexico: more than 608,000. The number of Mexicans encountered at the border had generally trended downward from FY2010 to FY2019, as shown by Figure 3. There was an increase from FY2019 to FY2020, from 166,000 to 253,000. The upward trend continued in FY2021, but the increase was much sharper than last year’s increase, with numbers more than doubling. The increase seems to be driven by an increase in single adults, usually men, from Mexico who are attempting to cross the border multiple times. It is not entirely clear what is contributing to this increase, though the pandemic and its negative impact on the Mexican economy has been cited. Anecdotal evidence, including interviews with migrants and historical trends, suggest that many of these men are likely leaving Mexico to seek work in the United States.

Figure 3: Total Encounters by Nationality, Mexico (FY2010-FY2021)

The second-highest number of encounters from a single country was Honduras, with 309,000 encounters, followed by Guatemala with 279,000, and El Salvador with 96,000. (Figure 4) Numbers from all Northern Triangle countries and Mexico were high across all categories, though family unit numbers from Guatemala and Honduras were higher in FY2019 (Figure 5).

Figure 4: Total Encounters by Nationality, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle (FY2011-FY2021)

Figure 5: Total Encounters by Demographic, Family Unit (FY2016-FY2021)

However, cumulatively, the “other” category, which includes countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Haiti, and Romania, had the second highest number of encounters, as shown in Figure 6, with nearly 370,000 encounters. It shows that a trend BPC covered in July and August remains strong, with counter-cyclical trends in border crossings continuing to hold. Some of the increase in migration from “other” countries might be attributed to increasing numbers of people seeking economic opportunity in the United States, as COVID erased hundreds of millions of jobs throughout Latin America.

Figure 6: Monthly Total Encounters by Nationality, including “Other” Category

Regardless of the cause, the nationalities encountered at the border are increasingly diverse. This developing trend will require a new and different approach to migration management, especially as some of these migrants are from countries that do not accept the return of their nationals when expelled or deported. Two countries that are the least cooperative when it comes to U.S. efforts to return migrants who do not qualify for protections, Venezuela and Cuba, had particularly high numbers in October 2021. There were nearly 13,500 nationwide encounters with Venezuelans in October, up from almost 11,000 in September, which was the highest number of FY2021. Encounters were on a somewhat steady increase last fiscal year, and the start of FY2022 indicates that this increase might continue. Nearly 6,000 Cubans were encountered nationwide in October, up from 5,000 in September and higher than the spike to 5,700 in March 2021.

The arrival of thousands of Haitians in Del Rio, Texas in September created specific concern. In September, 17,784 Haitians were encountered, the highest number of Haitians encountered by a wide margin in FY2021 (See Figure 7). The trend of increasing numbers of Haitian migrants coming through the region is reflected by Mexican migration statistics, where Haiti has become the leading country of origin for people seeking asylum during FY2021. Nearly 38,000 Haitians requested asylum in Mexico this year, indicating that unrest in Haiti, and deteriorating economic conditions in other countries where Haitians had been settled has driven many of them migrate to other countries in FY2021.

Figure 7: Monthly Total Encounters of Haitians

Title 42 vs. Title 8

Title 42 entered into force on March 21, 2020. The Trump administration implemented the public health order to prevent the entry of people who pose a potential health risk from other countries, either because they are subject to travel restrictions or because they entered the country illegally, thereby bypassing health screening measures. The Biden administration has kept the controversial measure in place, despite increasing pressure to rescind it, with DHS insisting that Title 42 is “not an immigration authority, but a public health authority, and its continued use is dictated by CDC and governed by the CDC’s analysis of public health factors.”

Since its implementation, 1,237,000 people have been expelled using the Title 42 order. Meanwhile, 662,000 people have been apprehended and processed using Title 8 (immigration authorities) in the same period. The number of people expelled using Title 42 is nearly twice the number of people processed under Title 8, showing how dependent both the Biden and Trump administrations have been on the order to manage migration at the border. In July and August of 2021, Title 8 apprehensions surpassed the number of Title 42 expulsions for the first time since March 2020 (Figure 8), but Title 42 expulsions spiked again in September 2021, likely due to the use of the order to expel a large number of Haitians at the border at the end of September. Numbers from October 2021 show the Biden administration’s continued high use of Title 42, with 92,000 Title 42 expulsions and 67,000 Title 8 apprehensions.

Figure 8: Monthly Southwest Border Apprehensions and Expulsions (March 2020 – FY2021)

The Title 42 order is being kept in place in part because the administration fears an increase in traffic at the border if the measure is repealed, though indications are that current border trends are in part being driven by the order’s continued use. Title 42 allows for the immediate deportation of individuals without screening or an opportunity to seek asylum. Individuals expelled under the order do not receive an order of deportation, but CBP records their biometrics and contact with the agency, which in turn is reported in the CBP numbers released monthly and at the end of the year. Indications are that the order is driving high levels of recidivism. Since many individuals that would normally be detained at the border or flown to their country of origin are instead being sent back to Mexico, it seems that those individuals often return to the border and attempt to cross again, especially since there is no penalty for repeat crossings. Most people being expelled under Title 42 are single adults, which makes it even more likely that many of the encounters recorded are of repeat offenders.

Growth in All Demographic Categories, but Single Adult Numbers Remain the Highest

Encounters in FY2021 in all demographic categories were at their highest recorded levels since FY2012, except for family units– FY2019’s number of 474,000 surpassed the 451,000 encountered this past year, as seen in Figure 9.

Figure 9: Total Encounters by Demographics (FY2012 – FY2021)

Single adult encounters were nearly triple their most recent peak of 361,000 from FY2013, shown in Figure 10, reinforcing the conclusion of many analysts that a large portion of the recorded encounters this year may have been of repeat offenders. However, the growth of the category cannot be solely attributed to repeat offenders. The large number of single adults may also have to do with an increasing number of migrants seeking economic opportunity in the United States (particularly due to the impact of COVID-19), although it is difficult to attribute the growth to any single factor, given that migration is almost always a multicausal phenomenon. Regardless, the high numbers in all categories represent logistical challenges for the administration, especially for unaccompanied minors and families.

Figure 10: Total Encounters by Demographic, Single Adult (FY2012 – FY2021)


Trends at the border this year have largely been driven by Title 42, which has inflated the number of crossings and recidivism rates and led to the high number of overall encounters in FY2021. It is also clear, from looking at the data, that counter-cyclical trends in FY2021 have held, indicating that new dynamics and trends in migration at the border are in play. Higher numbers of migrants from “other countries” shows that migration to the U.S.-Mexico border is increasingly global, with large numbers coming from Central and South America. Current events in other countries also drive migration to the border – unrest in Haiti led to high numbers of Haitian migrants at the end of FY2021, and FY2022 began with high numbers of migrants from Venezuela, which has been in a consistent state of unrest since 2014. However, the highest number of single-country encounters came from Mexico this year, which was also atypical of recent trends. Some of that may be based on close economic linkages between the United States and Mexico, which becomes particularly relevant during a crisis. Mexico has been hit hard by the pandemic, and many jobs have disappeared, likely leading many Mexican migrants to seek work in the United States for the time being. High numbers this year in the summer were also unusual – migration usually peaks in the spring, and then declines during hotter summer months. The United States is not the only country dealing with high numbers of migrants this year. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) has indicated that a global surge of migration is underway, with more migrants fleeing poverty, crime, and political violence. Their preferred final destinations are often the United States and the European Union. It is unclear, as we move into FY2022, which trends will remain and which will fall away, but what is clear is that more effective border management strategy is necessary, as numbers at the border will likely remain high for the foreseeable future.

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