New U.S. Customs and Border Protection data released in early January shows that southwest border encounters during the final three months of the Trump administration rose to levels last seen early in fiscal year 2019. Despite the significant decline in apprehensions in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CBP has recorded more encounters during the first three months of FY2021 than in any of the first three months of previous years of the Trump administration. These trends continue to suggest that although the Trump administration made hardline border deterrence efforts a signature of its larger immigration platform, these stringent mechanisms ultimately failed in deterring migrants from trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border from October to December 2020. In addition, with President Joe Biden now in the White House, many migrants are anticipating the new administration will rescind hardline Trump administration border policies, further facilitating the increase in arrivals at the southwest border since October 2020.
The new FY2021 data shows that monthly encounters1 at the southwest border have rebounded significantly since the initial decline in early 2020. As shown in Figure 1, the first three months of FY2021 witnessed more encounters at the border than any of the first three months of the four prior fiscal years.
In addition, Title 42 expulsions continue to comprise a majority of CBP enforcement encounters for the first three months of FY2021. As shown in Figure 2, CBP recorded 68,826 encounters in October 2020 which include both Title 8 apprehensions and Title 42 expulsions.2 Of those 68,826 encounters, 62,788 of them were Title 42 expulsions, while only 6,038 were Title 8 apprehensions. By December 2020, monthly encounters had risen to 70,630. The last time monthly encounters reached levels like this was seen in early FY2019 when Central American families began arriving at the southwest border in large numbers.
This trend raises questions as to whether the United States may face another surge of migration at the southwest border during the first few months of President Joe Biden’s first term. Recent reports have documented thousands of hopeful migrants joining Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to organizing northbound caravans, with many migrants exchanging messages specifically encouraging one another to wait until after Biden’s inauguration to travel. While U.S. border officials have stated that they will not allow any northbound caravans to cross, these trends suggest migrants anticipate President Biden’s arrival to the White House may make access easier and are planning accordingly.
In terms of demographic groups, the new CBP data also showed that single adults continued to comprise a majority of those apprehended at the border. As shown in Figure 3, of the 68,828 apprehensions in October 2020, 59,516 were single adults. For FY2021 to date, single adults have accounted for approximately 87% of all encounters, reverting to the demographic compositions that were experienced before 2014. In comparison, family units accounted for only 7% of all encounters during the first three months of FY2021, while unaccompanied children account for 6% of all encounters.
In addition, as shown in Figure 4, Mexican nationals continued to comprise most of the single adults apprehended and expelled at the southwest border during this period. As we have written previously, this data demonstrates that 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. This reverses recent trends of Central American families comprising the majority of those traveling to the United States. 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. With the number of Mexican migrants arriving at the border continuing to increase, the CBP data supports this possibility.
With CBP recording encounters at levels that have not been seen since early FY2019, President Biden may face continued increases in arrivals at the southwest border, and managing this flow should be an early priority for his administration.
While President Biden faces pressure to reverse certain Trump administration border policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols and the Title 42 program3, as well as various asylum programs such as PACR/HARP, it will not be easy. President Trump made over 400 actions, rules, and regulations on immigration during his presidency. With the situation at the border changing rapidly and migrants anticipating easier access to the southwest border, the new administration will face challenges in trying to rollback certain programs while simultaneously implementing new ones that successfully and safely manage shifting flows at the border. Nevertheless, DHS has been preparing contingency plans in anticipation of increasing arrivals to the border and relaying those plans to transition officials, demonstrating that the agency is finally developing alternative strategies to address shifting flows at the border.4 As the new administration takes office and rolls out its immigration agenda, we will have to see how quickly things change at the southwest border.
1 Beginning in March FY20, USBP Enforcement Encounters statistics include both Title 8 Apprehensions and Title 42 Expulsions.
2 Expulsions refer 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 Border Patrol apprehension or inadmissibility at a port of entry.
3 Biden promised to end MPP within his first 100 days as president.
4 To learn more about how DHS could better manage shifting migration patterns, read our Immigration FEMA policy recommendations here.