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Border Apprehensions: Mission Not Yet Accomplished

Over the last 18 months, the large number of families and children from Central America and other global regions arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum has emerged as a defining issue in the U.S. immigration debate. While monthly apprehensions spiked by May 2019, these numbers decreased by August due to seasonal changes combined with U.S. and Mexican enforcement actions containing and deterring migrants from accessing asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite this late-year decrease, the final fiscal year 2019 figures show arrivals for the entire year still reached levels last seen in 2007, primarily driven by family arrivals. Given the amount of resources the Trump administration has invested in using hardline measures to address current border challenges, the final FY2019 numbers raise questions about whether the recent declines will persist.

As Figure 1 shows, Customs and Border Protection recorded 851,508 apprehensions, which is slightly below the 858,638 documented in FY2007. The period between FY2017 and FY2019 also marks the first time since the 1970s that numbers increased from approximately 300,000 to 852,000, albeit at a significantly faster pace than the pattern seen in earlier eras.

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Figure 1: Annual Southwest Border Apprehension (FY1960-FY2019)

Source: CBP (1)(2)

In contrast to prior spikes in apprehensions, which were mostly adult Mexican men, families drove the FY2019 increase. Family unit apprehensions increased from 77,676 in FY2016 to 473,682 in FY2019. As Figure 2 shows, these apprehensions rose from 19% of all apprehensions in FY2016 to 56% in FY2019, completely reversing a long trend where single individuals were the primary apprehended populations. In the case of unaccompanied children, FY2019 showed numbers higher than the previous “spike” during the Obama administration in 2014, growing from 68,541 in FY2014 to 76,020 in FY2019. However, due to the overall increase in total apprehensions, unaccompanied children decreased as a percentage of overall apprehensions, dropping from 14% in FY2014 to 9% in FY2019.

Figure 2: Annual Southwest Border Apprehensions by Demographic Group (FY2012-FY2019)

Source: CBP (1)(2)

The FY2019 numbers also show that migrants from the Northern Triangle countries were the largest group of nationals apprehended at the border. As Figure 3 shows, CBP recorded 684,421 apprehensions of Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran nationals in FY2019, accounting for 80% of all border apprehensions. In contrast, CBP recorded 190,760 apprehensions of Mexican nationals in FY2016, which formed 46% of all apprehensions, and 199,401 apprehensions of nationals from the Northern Triangle countries, accounting for 48% in that year. These numbers form part of a broader trend of apprehensions shifting from Mexican nationals—mostly single Mexican men—to Central American migrants over the last 10 years. However, news reports in November 2019 noted that Mexican nationals are reemerging as the largest nationality group of apprehensions, which could reverse the trend seen in the FY2019 apprehension figures.

Figure 3: Annual Southwest Border Apprehensions by Nationality (FY2016-FY2019)

Source: CBP

Nationals of Northern Triangle countries also accounted for most family unit apprehensions. As Figure 4 shows, CBP recorded 430,546 family unit apprehensions for nationals from these countries, which formed 91% of all family unit apprehensions. We noted similar trends for unaccompanied children: CBP apprehended 62,748 children from these countries, or 82% of all apprehensions of children. However, Mexican migrants remained the largest group of individual apprehensions, with 149,967 Mexican apprehensions, making up 49% of the total 301,806 apprehensions of single adults.

Figure 4: Monthly Southwest Border Apprehensions (FY2000 – FY2019)

Source: CBP (1) (2)

Although President Donald Trump has touted that this hardline border enforcement approach has deterred the arrival of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, it is too early to tell whether the current downward trend will continue. If these numbers increase in FY2020, the administration will face a choice of abandoning or doubling down on its efforts to deny asylum at the border and rely on other countries in the region to control migration. This situation also raises questions of whether the administration can sustain these efforts over the long term, especially as increasing cartel violence in Mexico has led its public to criticize Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for focusing on immigration at the expense of other law enforcement efforts. The next several years will show the success—or failure—of the Trump administration’s policies in changing migration patterns at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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