New U.S. Customs and Border Protection data released in early April reveals an historic increase in the number of unaccompanied children being encountered at the border, as well as overall encounters, with the number of encounters this fiscal year already surpassing the total number of encounters seen in FY2020. The new figures come as the Biden administration has struggled with the logistical challenges of processing arriving migrants, particularly housing the record-setting number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. Should these trends continue, the Biden administration will likely face continuing challenges in adapting border infrastructure—originally designed to process single adult individuals—to process more children and families.
As Figure 1 shows, the total number of CBP encounters1 at the southwest border continued to outpace prior trends seen in the last several years. In March 2021, CBP encountered a total of 168,195 arrivals. This brings the year-to-date total for encounters in FY2021 to 550,406, well surpassing the total number of encounters seen over the course of FY2020.2
The March CBP data reveals the extent to which the number of unaccompanied children (UACs) and families arriving at the southwest border has increased exponentially. As shown in Figure 2, the number of children apprehended by Border Patrol reached 18,663 in March alone, the largest monthly total since the Border Patrol began keeping track. This figure is well above the previous monthly highs when CBP apprehended 10,620 children in June 2014 and 11,475 children in May 2019.
The rise in UACs arriving at the border are primarily non-Mexican minors (i.e., children from the Northern Triangle countries). As shown in Figure 3, in FY2021 year-to-date, only 11,785 of the 47,642 unaccompanied minors encountered at the border have been Mexican nationals, compared to the 34,076 children from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Encounters of UACs have fluctuated significantly in the last decade. In FY2011, for example, Mexican children accounted for 73% of UAC apprehensions, while those from the Northern Triangle countries accounted for only 27%. By FY2019, the proportions had reversed, with Mexican nationals comprising 14% of all UAC apprehensions at the southwest border while 86% were from the Northern Triangle countries. The FYTD2021 data reflects this continuing trend with approximately 72% of children encountered being from North Triangle countries, while only 25% encountered are from Mexico.
This significant rise in UACs arriving at the border is a result of many factors, including two deadly hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, that have exacerbated poverty levels in the Northern Triangle region. In addition, the rise has coincided with the Biden administration’s decision to exempt UACs from the Title 42 program, which immediately expels most arriving migrants from the United States, pursuant to public health grounds. Instead, UACs apprehended by a Border Patrol agent are now brought to a local Border Patrol station and processed for transfer to the Department of Health and Human Services, pursuant to immigration law.
Under the law, a child must be transferred to HHS custody within 72 hours of apprehension by a border official. HHS is responsible for locating, vetting, and releasing the child to an adult sponsor in the United States. According to a March statement from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, in more than 80% of cases, the child has a family member in the United States and in more than 40% of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian.
The new CBP data goes against DHS officials’ March statement that most families apprehended at the border were being expelled to Mexico. One complicating factor is a recently enacted Mexican law that has prevented the United States from rapidly turning away some migrant families at one of the busiest sections of the southwestern border, Tamaulipas, along south Texas. This change has forced agents to resume releasing families into the United States or transporting them to other sections of the border to be expelled to Mexico.
In addition, the CBP data also show that most families are arriving at two sectors of the border: the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) and Del Rio in South Texas. Further analysis reveals an important nuance: at these two sectors where the majority of families are arriving, most are not being expelled. In the Del Rio sector, 55% of families encountered are subsequently expelled. In the RGV sector, where more families are arriving than Del Rio, only 32% of families encountered are expelled. This means that a majority of total families encountered across across the border are subsequently being released into the United States. In RGV, roadblocks for expulsion include Mexico’s refusal to accept families with young children. In the Yuma and El Centro sectors, where a majority of families arriving are from countries other than Mexico and Central America (e.g. Haiti), Mexico is also refusing to take back these families.
Overall, CBP encountered 52,904 families in March 2021, a dramatic increase over the 19,286 families that were encountered the previous month. Of those 52,904 families, 17,345 were expelled pursuant to the Title 42 program. Families accounted for 31% of encounters at the border in March, where they had only accounted for 20% in February. As shown in Figure 4, while encounters for all demographic groups increased in March, the family and UAC encounters are up significantly. Single adults accounted for 71% of all encounters in February but fell to only 57% in March. Thus, while single adults are still the majority of encounters, the March data is evidence that prior trends are starting to shift as more families and children arrive at the border.
Finally, the March CBP data reveals the extent to which Title 8 apprehensions increased relative to the number of Title 42 expulsions. As shown in Figure 5, CBP recorded 66,298 apprehensions and 101,897 expulsions in March, compared to 25,601 apprehensions and 71,948 expulsions in February. Thus, while both apprehensions and expulsions increased from February to March, Title 8 apprehensions accounted for only 26% of all encounters compared to almost 40% of all encounters in March. Conversely, Title 42 expulsions accounted for 74% of all encounters in February but dropped to only 60% in March.
Although seasonal increases of migrant arrivals at the southwest border have become the norm in recent years, these recent increases, particularly of non-Mexican UACs, are well beyond those seasonal averages. The March 2021 data showed increases in encounters across all demographic groups, but the percentage increases in families and UACs were far larger than single adults. Should these trends continue, the Biden administration will face a crisis similar to what occurred in 2014 and 2019, when children and families comprised a majority of encounters at the border. The administration will face continued pressure to reform the U.S. border management system, which currently is not designed to be flexible and responsive to these changes in migrant flows.
1 Enforcement Actions refers to apprehensions or inadmissibles processed under CBP’s immigration authority. Inadmissibles refers to individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws, and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe. Apprehensions refers to the physical control or temporary detainment of a person who is not lawfully in the U.S. which may or may not result in an arrest. Expulsions refers to individuals encountered by USBP and OFO and expelled to the country of last transit or home country in the interest of public health under Title 42 U.S.C. 265.
2 In FY2020, CBP encountered 400,651 migrants.