What Changing Migration Patterns Mean for Border Management
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released year-end data for fiscal year 2022 on October 21, 2022, showing a record-breaking number of encounters at the border, driven in particular by a sharp increase in Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans. These numbers illustrate the increasingly hemispheric nature of migration, which we noted at the end of FY2021, pointing out increases in the “other” nationality category that have persisted into this year. Figure 1, below, places the increase in encounters in context, with over 2.2 million encounters between ports of entry by U.S. Border Patrol in FY2022, far surpassing FY2021’s record of 1.66 million.
Figure 1: Total Southwest Border Encounters (Between POEs) (FY1980-FY2022)
Continued Diversification of Nationalities Encountered
As much of the press coverage has noted, there was a continued increase in migration from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras this year. About 1.26 million encounters were with migrants from those four countries, while about 950,000 encounters were with migrants from “other” countries. For comparison, in FY2019, about 775,000 encounters were with migrants from Mexico and Northern Triangle countries, while a little over 77,000 migrants from “other” countries were encountered. The growth in migration from “other” countries can be seen in Figure 2, with the number of migrants from “other” countries increasing 150% this fiscal year as compared to FY2021.
Figure 2: Encounters by Nationality, Mexico vs. Northern Triangle vs. “Other” Countries (FY2019-FY2022)
Press coverage of the increase in migration from countries other than Mexico and the three northern countries of Central America has focused particularly on nationals of Venezuela, and the Biden administration has responded to this increase specifically by instituting a new parole program (and new restrictions on applying for asylum at the border) for Venezuelans to discourage them from making the journey up through Mexico.. According to reports in mid-October, the Biden administration was considering offering the same kind of parole program for Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians—all countries that saw significant increases in migrants in the last year—though they were ultimately not included. There has been a sustained increase in migrants from Nicaragua and Cuba, starting around March 2021 (though there had been an increase in Cuban migrants since June 2020), as seen in Figure 3, below.
Figure 3: Encounters by Nationality, Venezuela vs. Nicaragua vs. Cuba (FY2021-FY2022)
The increase in migrants from Cuba has been especially notable—there were slightly over 38,000 encounters of Cubans at the southwest border in FY2021, and just over 220,000 encounters in FY2022, a nearly 500% increase. Cubans have fled the communist country to come to the United States for decades but more commonly arrived by boat. In 2015, the land border saw an increase in Cubans, as the Obama administration moved to normalize relations with Cuba and ended special immigration status for migrants fleeing Cuba, essentially gutting the Cuban Adjustment Act. In 2017, just before he left office, Obama ended the so called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that administrations for decades had used to repatriate Cubans interdicted at sea, while allowing those who made it to land to immediately be considered for asylum. The increase in Cuban arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border was one reason for the change. In subsequent years, Cuban migration to the border slowed. However, in November 2021, Nicaragua dropped its visa requirement for Cubans, so many Cubans now fly to Nicaragua and then journey by land to the southwest border of the United States on foot. Inflation, the economic impact of the pandemic and sanctions, a struggle in tourism recovery, and pent-up demand are some of the current migration drivers. The number of Cuban migrants encountered has often surpassed the number of Venezuelan migrants encountered from month to month, especially from February 2022 to July 2022 when a new visa rule for Venezuelans (instituted in January 2022 by Mexico) temporarily reduced the number of Venezuelans encountered at the border. The number of Venezuelans encountered at the border again surpassed the number of Cubans encountered in August 2022.
The increase in Nicaraguans has also been substantial, going from about 2,000 encounters in FY2020 to slightly more than 50,000 encounters in FY2021, to just less than 164,000 encounters in FY2022. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has grown increasingly autocratic, changing the constitution to abolish term limits, accused of rigging elections in 2016 and 2021, and cracking down violently on protesters, all of which may be contributing to the increase in migration, though the exact causes are difficult to pinpoint. Protests have persisted since 2018, with Nicaraguans fleeing the country since then but only recently to the U.S., as many previously went to Costa Rica. The government’s recent crackdown on the Catholic church promises to further chill dissent, possibly leading to another increase in migration.
During a press conference in September 2022, President Biden noted that the increases in migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has been difficult to manage due to the government’s inability to return them abroad since those countries do not accept migrant expulsions.
There has also been a significant increase in migrants from Colombia, India, and Brazil. In FY2021, about 6,000 Colombian migrants were encountered at the southwest border, increasing to almost 125,000 in FY2022, a nearly 2000% increase. The reason for the increase is unclear, but numbers began to climb in August 2021, as seen below in Figure 4. Numbers have continued to rise throughout FY2022, growing in earnest in February 2022 and peaking in May 2022 at around 19,300. There were protests in the country beginning in April 2021, triggered by an unpopular tax reform and sustained by concerns around inequality, police brutality, and the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Protests continued throughout 2021, flaring again in July 2021 which coincides with an uptick in Colombian encounters. The increase may also be related to the low rate of expulsion for Colombians under Title 42, as Mexico does not accept their return to its territory.
Figure 4: Encounters by Nationality, Colombia (FY2021-FY2022)
In FY2021, just over 2,500 migrants from India were encountered at the southwest border, while in FY2022, there were close to 18,200 encounters—more than a 600%increase. Encounters have hovered between 1,000 and 2,500 per month since December 2021. The number of Brazilians encountered in FY2022 was similar to the number encountered in FY2021; in FY2022, there were nearly 53,500 encounters, while in FY2021 there were approximately 59,000 encounters. There were a little over 7,000 encounters in FY2020, indicating that the increase in Brazilian encounters seen in FY2021 may be a sustained trend.
Single Adults Drive Increase, but Numbers of Families and Children Encountered Remain High
Encounters of single adults at the southwestern border continue to drive the increase in the overall number of encounters at the border, as seen in figure 5 below.
Figure 5: Total Encounters by Demographic, Single Adult vs. Family Unit vs. Unaccompanied Child/Single Minor (FY2012-FY2022)
Nearly 1,575,000 single adults were encountered at the border in FY2022, compared to about 1,063,000 in FY2021. The majority of those single adults, about 971,000, come from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, with almost 690,000 single adults from Mexico. Cuban single adults accounted for the largest number of single adults from outside those four countries, with nearly 167,800 single adults. Nicaragua followed, with about 130,600 single adults, and Venezuela narrowly behind all “other” countries combined—120,000 “other” single adults compared to 120,600 Venezuelan single adults.
Figure 6: Total Encounters by Demographic, Single Adult (FY2022)
The number of family units encountered in FY2022 increased only slightly from FY2021, going from just over 451,000 to about 483,000 family units. The same is true of unaccompanied children—about 149,000 unaccompanied children were encountered in FY2022, compared to nearly 145,000 in FY2021. The vast majority of unaccompanied children came from Mexico and the Northern Triangle—almost 138,000 children—with Guatemala making up the largest portion, nearly 60,500 children. Overall patterns changed little from last year, as seen in Figure 7 below, though there were increases in unaccompanied children from Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, India, and Venezuela, and a decrease in children from Ecuador.
Figure 7: Total Encounters by Demographic, Unaccompanied Children/Single Minors (FY2021-FY2022)
Continued Reliance on Title 42 to Manage the Border
Though the Biden administration attempted to end Title 42 through a CDC order issued in April 2022, an attempt that was ultimately blocked by a federal judge in May 2022, the administration has continued to use the public health order as a border management tool. This is evidenced by the administration’s recent decision to expand Title 42 to Venezuelans in an effort to deter them from making the journey to the border. Yet the administration continues to argue in court that the policy should be rescinded, and has greatly increased its use of immigration authorities under Title 8 for border encounters compared to last year (See Figure 8), nearly doubling the amount of immigration apprehensions from about 620,000 in FY2021 to about 1,150,000 in FY2022.
Figure 8: Southwest Border Apprehensions vs. Expulsions (FY2021-FY2022)
However, Title 42 remains a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s border strategy, having been used at the border over a million times in both fiscal year FY2021 and FY2022—about 1,040,000 times in FY2021 and a little over 1,054,000 times in FY2022. The use of Title 42 has decreased in recent months, seen below in figure 10, going from approximately 104,000 expulsions in May 2022 to around 75,000 expulsions starting in July 2022, a change likely spurred by the increasing numbers of people from countries that Mexico will not allow expelled across the border.
Figure 9: Monthly Southwest Border Apprehensions and Expulsions (March 2020 – FY2022)
Title 42 is unlikely to end any time soon, since the CDC has not yet sought public comment on the termination of the process, which is required by the federal judge in order to formally end Title 42.
The Biden administration is becoming increasingly reliant on temporary tools, using Title 42 and parole programs, like the new process for Venezuelans, to manage the border in the absence of reform to the overall border management framework. This means the process at the border is becoming a patchwork, made up of decades-old policies that no longer reflect the reality of migration at our southwest border and temporary processes instituted in an effort to catch up. As migration to the border becomes increasingly diverse and hemispheric, the asylum backlog continues to grow and fails to deliver timely decisions to immigrants, while encounters of family units and unaccompanied children remain high. A new approach is desperately needed. The Biden administration has instituted some process changes , such as streamlining asylum by giving asylum officers the power to make asylum determinations for new arrivals at the border and increasing the use of ports of entry to process asylum seekers, but more drastic and permanent changes are needed. Absent congressional action, this and future administrations will continue to rely on temporary changes to manage a the changing dynamics at the border.
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