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Is There a Border Crisis? That Is Not the Question We Should Be Asking.

Recent data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed another increase in encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border, to around 76,000 in January 2021. Following a few months of increases, traditional and online media are having an argument over whether to say there is a border crisis or if one is coming. This debate over “the right narrative” is beside the point. The real question we should be asking is: “What is the Biden administration doing now to manage and prepare for whatever migration changes might happen in the future?”

First, let’s look at the numbers. At the outset we should state that since 2009, overall numbers of apprehended arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border have been below the historic peaks seen in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2009, apprehensions have varied between 300,000 and 550,000 per year. During the 1980s and 1990s these numbers reached highs of more than 1.5 million. However, what has been happening more recently at the border remains notable and necessitates a different approach to border enforcement.

As BPC has documented,1 over the last several years we have seen very large shifts in who is arriving at the border and what they are trying to do. As shown in Figure 1, beginning in 2014, we saw the shift from single adults—overwhelmingly Mexican—who were trying to evade the Border Patrol and primarily looking for work in the United States, to the arrival of unaccompanied Central American children seeking asylum who were not trying to evade apprehension. This was followed by the significant increase in Central American families seeking asylum, still mostly turning themselves in. By 2019, these family units made up the majority of encounters at the border. After the Trump administration put in place its series of programs, policies, and new orders—the Title 42 CDC expulsion order in particular—throughout 2020, the makeup of encounters shifted again. In recent months, the border saw fewer unaccompanied children and families arriving, while the number of Mexican single adults increased. However, CBP data from January has shown that more families and unaccompanied children have started arriving at the border in the last month. For example, 4,494 families were encountered at the border in December 2020. That number jumped to 7,260 in January 2021. Single adult encounters also increased from December to January, but marginally, from 61,698 to 62,231.

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Figure 1: Monthly Southwest Border Encounters by Demographic Group (FY2011-FYTD2021)

Beginning in March FY2020, USBP and OFO Encounter statistics include both Title 8 Apprehensions, Title 8 Inadmissibles, and Title 42 Expulsions.

Source: CBP (1)(2) 

The continued increase in single adults is the driving factor in recent increases in encounters. We have reported that this appears to be in some part due to the effect that the Title 42 order has had. Instead of being admitted and processed for immigration removal, which has immigration consequences and may include detention, most adult Mexicans are being repatriated to Mexico under this order. These repatriations often occur within hours of being encountered, without any immigration processing at all. This allows for repeated attempts to enter within a short period of time. In fact, CBP also reports that recidivism is increasing, especially among this group. In a recent statement, CBP estimated that between March 20, 2020 and February 4, 2021, 38% of all encounters involved recidivism. As shown in Figure 2, we have also seen an increase in encounters of people from outside of Central and South America, including Haitians, Cubans, nationals of African countries, and migrants from India.2

Figure 2: Annual Southwest Border Apprehensions by Nationality (FY10-FY20)

Source: CBP (1)(2) 

These changes mean that the United States can no longer rely on a “steady state” picture of migrants at the southern border, and our infrastructure, policies, and processes need to be adaptable to differing and shifting groups. So, the right question is not whether there is a crisis right now, but what are we doing, or have we done, to have the right response ready for whatever changes may come?

The short answer is nothing. Throughout the Obama and Trump presidencies, we saw a series of reactive responses to shifts that had already resulted in crisis. These responses almost always focused on ways meant to deter or prevent entry, including detentions, expedited deportations, and seeking assistance from Mexico and other countries in stopping or reducing the number of arrivals.3 By not planning ahead with a processing system that can be flexible and expand quickly as needed, these defensive actions became the primary response.

The Biden administration must break out of this paradigm. Recent executive orders and legislative proposals that talk about addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America are laudable, but these long-term goals do not address the recent shift back to Mexican migration or the increases in migrants from outside of Latin America. Creating a comprehensive strategy with other countries to help manage irregular migration throughout the region that leans on multi-lateral agreements to provide multiple avenues for protection for asylum-seekers and refugees is necessary, but will take time to negotiate and establish. What the United States can do more quickly in the short term is develop a menu of responses that can be put in place quickly and early before a slight change in arrivals becomes a crisis. We have called this policy response a sort of “immigration FEMA.

While not exactly the same as a FEMA response to a natural disaster or other emergency, the concepts are similar to best practices in emergency management, i.e., the creation of plans, processes, and most importantly, preparation of personnel and resources that can be quickly acted upon, and are pre-positioned as much as possible to respond, mitigate and recover. For migration management, this means looking at our border infrastructure, personnel, and immigration systems for response to changes in migration at the border as somewhat distinct from the “normal” immigration system. This is particularly needed for asylum seekers. The arrival of thousands of migrants who were placed into our “regular” asylum system overwhelmed it and encouraged additional arrivals. Most certainly, not all of these arrivals will qualify for asylum, but the system was not designed to rapidly, and with due process, decide these claims at the rate that new asylum seekers were arriving.

Any “response system” must still include valid and viable avenues for those who are seeking protection to do so, and for all individuals to be certain of humane treatment while their cases are considered. Simply funneling everyone into the domestic immigration system to “figure it out later” undermines both the point of border management and those whose viable claims are now delayed by years. Further, it results in a long-term backlog that will be with us long after the “crisis” is over.

There are many ways these systems could work. BPC has proposed several options, as have other organizations. The structure of these systems is important, but so is the speed with which they can be put into place. The administration needs to work now, before the situation at the border becomes worse. They should put in place the mechanisms for the future, so that we don’t revert to a defensive posture that harms migrants, as well as our immigration systems for years after.

End Notes:

1 Click here for past blogs written about the U.S.-Mexico border.
2 CBP does not break down the data for the “other” category.
3 The Obama administration did introduce small programs to create in-region processing for unaccompanied children and some vulnerable groups, but these programs were not large and backlogs and delays in processing meant that most migrants did not see them as viable alternatives to arriving to the border.

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