The author would like to thank Cristobal Ramón for his assistance in writing this piece.
Over the course of 2020, apprehensions dropped significantly from the heights of the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that the final fiscal year 2020 border apprehensions were significantly lower than those in FY2018 and FY2019, indicating that the Trump administration’s policies limiting asylum access at the border and the COVID-19 pandemic made migrants–especially families and children–wary of traveling to the United States. However, CBP data also shows the Title 42 program began to expel significantly more single adults, a group that likely includes a larger percentage of Mexican nationals. Although the Trump administration introduced the Title 42 program to deter the arrival of migrants seeking asylum, these trends strongly suggest that migration to the U.S.-Mexico has reverted back to past historic patterns when large numbers of single Mexican men attempted to enter the country at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Figure 1 shows, CBP recorded 400,651 encounters at the southwest border during FY2020, which includes both apprehensions and Title 42 expulsions.1 CBP recorded 203,608 apprehensions, a marked drop from the 851,508 apprehensions recorded in FY2019 Central American families arrived in large numbers. The FY2020 levels were also lower than those seen in FY2017, which marked the lowest number of recorded apprehensions since the 1970s. Although apprehensions dropped, the Department of Homeland Security began using Title 42 expulsions in March 2020 as an alternative to apprehensions. In FY2020, DHS recorded 197,043 expulsions, which formed almost half of all encounters.
Monthly apprehensions during FY2020 dropped significantly from the levels seen in FY2019. CBP apprehended 1,549 migrants in May 2020, a 98.43% decrease from May 2019 when the agency apprehended 132,956 individuals. The last time border enforcement actions in a single month came close to these monthly levels was April 2017, which at the time marked the lowest monthly apprehensions that CBP recorded since 1999. However, during the same period DHS began recording significantly more expulsions of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Expulsions increased from 7,081 in March 2020 to 48,327 in September 2020 when it formed 88% of all encounters that month. As a total, however, encounters in FY2020 were approximately the same as in 2018, making the drop in apprehensions mostly a shift in how migrants were processed, and showing that arrivals remained fairly consistent across the last decade, with FY2019 remaining an outlier for the period.
In terms of demographic groups, single adults2 formed a majority of encounters in FY2020 (Figure 3), accounting for 79% in FY2020. Family units were 13% and unaccompanied children were 8% this past year. Despite the overall decreases in encounters of unaccompanied children in FY2020, apprehensions for this group increased between May through September.3 These percentages for the three groups mark a reversal from the trends seen in FY2019, which only included apprehensions. In that year, single adults formed 35% of apprehensions, family units were 56%, and unaccompanied children were 9%.
The FY2020 CBP data also suggests that the agency expelled an increasing number of single adults through the end of the fiscal year. As Figure 4 shows, CBP primarily apprehended single adults during the first five months of FY20 as apprehensions dropped for the other categories. After the Trump administration implemented the Title 42 program in March 2020, CBP began encountering more single adults starting in May 2020. The increase in single adult encounters, which includes Title 42 expulsions, tracks closely with the expanding number of expulsions that CBP recorded through the end of FY2020. Although CBP has not published data that separates apprehensions and expulsions for these demographic groups, this trend does suggest that DHS was primarily expelling single adults from the U.S.-Mexico border throughout FY2020.
Recent reporting has revealed more information about the program and its impact on migrants. Reports reviewing non-public data found that CBP recorded 13,000 expulsions of unaccompanied children since March 2020. CBP has been criticized for this practice, especially as children have special protections under U.S. law including the right to have their asylum claims adjudicated by a judge. Given that Title 42 expulsions do not have immigration consequences such as bars against future legal entry into the United States, reports have found that adults have attempted to reenter the United States after an expulsion because there are no disincentives preventing migrants from trying to reenter the country again, which could explain the increases in expulsions between March and September as seen in Figure 4.
Finally, the FY2020 numbers also show CBP had more encounters with migrants from Mexico relative to FY2019 figures. As Figure 5 shows, CBP recorded 253,118 encounters with Mexican nationals in FY2020, which formed 63% of all encounters. Data also shows that 90% of encounters with Mexican migrants involved single adults, which continues to show that migrant flows are reverting to prior trends seen between the 1980s and 2000s. In contrast, Mexican nationals accounted for only 20% of apprehensions in FY2019, with nationals from the Northern Triangle accounted for 73% of apprehensions. While migrants from the Northern Triangle have formed a larger percentage of those apprehended at the border since 2017, recent reports have suggested that the pandemic may trigger a Mexican migration crisis in 2021.
The Trump administration’s border policies and the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly contributed to the overall decline in apprehensions at the southwest border. However, it remains unclear the extent to which policies like Title 42 are effectively deterring individuals from the border or will continue to generate more migration of single adults from Mexico. Despite the significant drop in apprehensions in April, expulsions grew throughout the summer and into the fall at a significant rate. Former Vice President Joe Biden has promised to undo many of Trump’s hardline executive orders, raising questions about whether these trends would change significantly. Recent interviews by officials in the Trump administration indicate that the policies would not only continue but additional limitations on asylum could be enacted. The situation at the U.S.-Mexico border will continue to be of major importance to whomever wins the election.
1 Expulsions refers to individuals encountered by U.S. Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations and expelled to the country of last transit or home country in the interest of public health under Title 42 U.S.C. 265. Expulsions under Title 42 are not based on immigration status and are tracked separately from immigration enforcement actions, such as apprehension or inadmissibility.
2 CBP began including Title 42 expulsions alongside apprehensions for these three demographic groups starting in March 2020 for its FY2020 data using the term “encounters”.
3 In September 2020, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration could no longer detain immigrant children in hotels before expelling them to the United States. Since March of this year, border officials have placed approximately 577 children in hotel rooms before expelling them without the opportunity to request asylum or other protections. In October 2020, an appeals court upheld the decision.