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Migrant Encounters Rise at Northern Border and at Sea

While still much smaller in number than encounters at the southern border, the increases in encounters at the northern border and at sea indicate that migrants are seeking alternative routes to enter the U.S. These routes, though sometimes less tightly controlled than the southern border, are equally as perilous, with the number of fatal drownings in the Caribbean rising and those attempting to cross the northern border being exposed to extreme, and sometimes fatal, weather conditions. As the Biden administration attempts to grapple with the end of Title 42 and its impact on migration at the southern border, it must also address these alternative routes.

Migrant Encounters at the Northern Border

The northern land border saw a significant increase in encounters this fiscal year. In fiscal year 2021, just over 27,000 migrants were encountered at the northern border by the Office of Field Operations (CBP officers at lawful ports of entry) and U.S. Border Patrol (agents patrolling the rest of the border), slightly below the FY2020 total of about 32,500. However, in FY2022, there were close to 110,000 encounters—an increase of nearly 350%, seen below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Northern Land Border Encounters (FY2020-FY2023TD)

Though much of the increase in encounters at the norther land border this fiscal year was driven by encounters with Canadians—40,600 Canadians encountered in FY2022, compared to 16,200 Canadians in FY2021—there were significant increases in encounters with Chinese, Indian, Ukrainian migrants, and migrants from other countries.

India and China are Canada’s two largest source countries for new immigrants. As economic and political turmoil has increased in India and China countries, it’s possible a larger number of migrants from both countries are making the journey to Canada and then continuing onwards to the United States. There were nearly 6,700 encounters of Chinese migrants at the northern border in FY2022, compared to just about 900 encounters in FY2021, and more than 17,300 encounters of Indian migrants in FY2022, rising from just about 2,200 in FY2021, seen below in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Encounters by Nationality, China and India (FY2021-FY2022)

There has also been an increase in encounters of both nationalities at the southern border—the number of Indians encountered at the southwestern border rose to nearly 64,000 in FY2022, compared to around 30,700 in FY2021. The number of Chinese encounters at the southern border rose from 450 in FY2021 to close to 2,200 in FY2022.

Drivers of Migration

Experts have put forward a number of reasons for the possible increase in Indian migrants to the southern border, pointing toward a climate of discrimination in the country, the end of pandemic-era restrictions, a perception that the Biden administration welcomes asylum seekers, and an increase in previously established smuggling networks. Sectarian violence has also intensified, as right-wing groups targeting Muslims through rhetoric and provocation has led to an increase in communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Violent clashes and a surge in summary punishments of Muslims has driven many Muslims to leave the country. The factors driving Indian migrants to the southern border are likely the same factors bringing migrants from India to the northern border, as well as the fact that the northern border is less-fortified than the southern border.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) warned in 2020 that Indian nationals would increasingly use sophisticated human smuggling networks to reach Canada, a trend that seems to have borne out this fiscal year, with the tragic death of an Indian family in January 2022. The smuggler who abandoned the Indian family is believed to have been part of a major human smuggling operation spanning India, Canada, and the United States.

More people have sought to leave China after years of strict “zero COVID” policies and stricter political controls, in what is being called the “run movement.” Strict lockdowns in 2022, combined with a sense of disillusionment in the youngest generation of Chinese citizens, shrinking economic opportunities, and growing political oppression, has led many Chinese citizens to leave the country. It is possible that the factors driving the “run movement” are leading more Chinese migrants to both the northern and southern border. An increasing number of rich and ultra-rich Chinese citizens are also searching for ways to leave, as fears that the Chinese government could seize their wealth and assets grow. Many of these rich and ultra-rich Chinese citizens are looking to Canada as an option, and some who make the journey may continue on to the United States.

The increase in Ukrainian encounters at the border was relatively smaller than the increase in Chinese and Indian encounters, going from just over 30 encounters in FY2021 to around 1,320 encounters in FY2022. Encounters began to rise in March 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, peaked in April 2022, and dropped in May 2022, though about 100 Ukrainians have been encountered on a monthly basis since then.

The increase in encounters this fiscal year was primarily driven by single adults. In FY2020, about 29,500 single adults were encountered at the northern border; that number decreased slightly in FY2021, to nearly 25,000 encounters. In FY2022, close to 93,000 single adults were encountered at the northern border. Numbers rose steadily throughout the year, dipping slightly in February and September of 2022, seen below in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Encounters by Demographic, Single Adult (FY2020-FY2022)

However, there has been a notable increase of family unit encounters at the northern border, which seems likely to persist into this fiscal year with nearly 2,500 family encounters in October 2022. In FY2020, there were about 2,300 family unit encounters, decreasing to around 1,400 encounters in FY2021. In FY2022, there were just above 14,000 family unit encounters—a nearly 900% increase from last fiscal year, seen below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Encounters by Demographic, Family Unit (FY2020-FY2022)

Most migrants entering the United States from Canada are being processed through ports of entry using Title 8, but once migrants are processed it is not clear whether they are being released into the United States or being sent back to Canada using expedited removal. In other words, the data does not reveal how much of this increase in numbers is resulting in people being released into the United States. Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, the United States could return those with protection claims to Canada, since the agreement requires claimants to request protection in the first safe country they arrive in. Returns under the Agreement would not be considered Title 8 returns.

Cooperation on migration is a key part of the Biden administration’s relationship with Trudeau’s government, and Canada has been a long-standing partner on the issue of migration management in the hemisphere. It is likely that both governments are already discussing how to respond to this new migration pattern, but it remains to be seen how each government chooses to handle the issue publicly.

Maritime Encounters on the Rise

FY2022 also saw a significant increase in unauthorized maritime migration from the Caribbean, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. The increase in maritime migration is predominantly made up of Haitians and Cubans, and has reached levels not seen since the 1990s. According to data provided to CNN by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), USCG crews have intercepted more than 13,000 Cubans and Haitians in FY2022. Six thousand of those interceptions were of Cubans. In the USCG’s FY2021 performance report, they noted that interdictions in the first six months of FY2022 exceeded annual interdiction results from eight of the past 10 years.

The number of Cubans and Haitians intercepted in FY2022 nearly matches the total number—14,500—of maritime migration attempts in FY2021. Numbers in FY2021 were already higher than in FY2020; according to a USCG report from FY2020, about 7,600 migrants attempted to enter the country using maritime routes that fiscal year, and around 6,100 were interdicted by the USCG and their partners. The USCG’s FY2021 performance report noted the increase in maritime migration attempts from FY2020 to FY2021, stating that “there is currently a surge of migrant activity in the maritime environment… the number of confirmed migrant landings… has increased 51% year-over-year.”

There were increases in maritime migration attempts starting in 2020, as the “oceanic human-smuggling pipeline” grew during the Trump administration. This growth was attributable to a number of factors—tighter land border enforcement under the Trump administration, the growth of smuggling rings and coyotes, and intensified passport control at airports led to a quintupling of apprehensions in the Southern California maritime zone in FY2020.

The current growth of maritime interdictions in the Caribbean, as mentioned previously, is largely due to a higher number of Cubans and Haitians making the perilous journey by boat. A number of push factors have led to this rise, mostly related to deteriorating conditions in countries of origin and the dearth of legal pathways available to enter the United States. The July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in Haiti contributed to spiraling gang violence, an increasingly weak governance system, and economic collapse, which was exacerbated by an August 2021 earthquake and tropical storm. Economic crisis in Cuba, deepened by the pandemic, spiking inflation, and worsening government repression in response to widespread protests in July 2021, have driven an increasing number of Cubans from the country.


The southern border is not the only United States border that requires a rethink in effective management. Trends at the northern border and at sea indicate that the Biden administration, and following administrations, must update policy for both to match modern trends and keep up with advanced smuggling networks. Smuggling at the southern border is now a billion-dollar business, and smuggling networks run by transnational criminal organizations have grown more sophisticated, using new smuggling routes and methods to conceal their activity. As travel increases post-COVID, and smuggling networks begin to cater to new groups of people, it is critical that the administration continue to crack down on smuggling while modernizing their approach to the northern border, the southern border, and maritime encounters.

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