Everything Old Is New: Southwest Border Migration Evokes Past Trends
After a decrease in southwest border apprehensions between July 2019 and April 2020, Customs and Border Protection data shows a rebound in single adult apprehensions in June 2020. Single adult Mexican nationals once again form a majority of apprehensions and Title 42 expulsions in fiscal year 2020 to date. This data shows migration to the U.S.-Mexico border is reverting to patterns seen between the 1970s and mid-2010s when single adult Mexican males were the overwhelming majority of arrivals, and completely reverses recent trends of majorities of Central American families traveling to the United States.
June’s data shows that single adults were the bulk of southwest border encounters1, which include apprehensions and expulsions, that month. As Figure 1 shows, encounters increased from 16,405 in April 2020 to 30,300 in June, bucking the declining trend that began in July 2019. Although encounters increased for family units, unaccompanied children, and single adults, single adults generated most of overall increase, forming 89.6% of encounters in June. This development reverses recent patterns of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border in which families from Central America seeking asylum in the United States were the largest group of apprehensions. After the Trump administration deterred this group though policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols single adults reemerged as the largest group in September 2019, echoing the patterns of migration to the border seen before mid-2018.
Figure 1: Southwest Border Encounters by Demographic Group (October 2017 – June 2020)
Single adult Mexican nationals form a majority of apprehensions and Title 42 expulsions to date in fiscal year 2020. As Figure 2 shows, CBP has apprehended or expelled 149,967 Mexican single adults in FY2020, accounting for 69% of all expulsions and apprehensions of single adults and 57% of all expulsions and apprehensions. Although Mexican nationals exceeded other nationalities in the single adult category in recent years, they were a smaller percentage of overall apprehensions. For instance, single adult Mexican nationals were only 17.6% of all FY2019 apprehensions but were half of single adult apprehensions. This data suggests current patterns of migration are beginning to resemble the period before FY2018 when single adult Mexicans were the primary source of migration to the border.
Figure 2: Nationalities of Single Adult Migrants in CBP Encounters at U.S.-Mexico Border (FY2016 – FY2020)
Finally, data on the Trump administration’s border enforcement policies suggests that measures like the Title 42 order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may replicate past government practices at the U.S.-Mexico border. As Figure 3 shows, Title 42 expulsions under the mid-March CDC order have grown since its inception, increasing from 6,927 in March to 27,504 in June 2020. The growth of these expulsions kept pace with the increase in single adult apprehensions, suggesting that CBP is primarily using the Title 42 authorities to process single adult Mexicans. Reporters have noted that Title 42 expulsions can occur within 96 minutes of encounter. This process may inadvertently mark the return of so-called “catch and release” policies common from the 1970s through the 1990s, in which immigration authorities would apprehend Mexican migrants and release them into Mexico through a process called “voluntary return” without imposing immigration penalties.2
Figure 3: Number of MPP Cases, ACA Returns, and Title 42 Expulsions Compared to Southwest Border Encounters (January 2019 – June 2020)
This data raises questions about the future of the Trump administration’s border deterrence strategy. In 2005, the George W. Bush administration introduced Operation Streamline to incentivize criminal prosecutions for illegal entry or reentry of those apprehended by CBP at the border. The policy was meant to deter the arrival of single adult Mexicans by ensuring that crossings had criminal as well as immigration penalties, and ending “catch and release” back to Mexico. Although the Trump administration used a similar rationale in its controversial Zero Tolerance Policy of prosecutions to deter Central American families from arriving at the border, public reaction against its separation of families led President Trump to abandon this measure and adopt other policies such as Migrant Protection Protocols to meet this goal. However, the persistence of single adult Mexican apprehensions may lead the White House to reinstitute similar punitive deterrence measures3. Rather than using short-term policies like Title 42, the White House’s announcement of proposed asylum regulations that significantly curtail access to these protections at the border suggests it wants to codify its hardline border policies as the final tool to deter migration at the border.
1 CBP began including Title 42 expulsions alongside immigration apprehensions in March 2020 for its FY2020 data under the umbrella term “encounters.” Figures 1 through 3 only include apprehension numbers for FY2016 to FY2019. These figures will use the term encounters since it includes Title 42 expulsions and apprehensions.
2 The meaning of “catch and release” has changed over time. Although initially referring to the practice outlined above, government officials and immigration critics began using it after 2014 to describe instances where immigration authorities would release non-Mexican migrant families and unaccompanied children into the United States to await their immigration removal and asylum case hearings before an immigration judge.
3 The administration has already taken steps to deter Mexican asylum seekers. In October, DHS introduced two pilot programs that channeled asylum seekers through the expedited removal process. In addition to the Prompt Asylum Claim Review, or PACR, program for Central American migrants, the administration also maintains the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process for Mexican nationals. In February 2020, CBP stated it had placed 1,200 migrants in HARP and 2,500 in PACR.
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