The latest U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) data shows that the number of family unit and unaccompanied children (UACs) apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border reached new historic highs in May 2019. Not only did the agency encounter more UACs than it did during the height of the 2014 unaccompanied child migrant crisis, but the data shows that CBP apprehended the greatest number of individuals coming as families since it started tracking this data in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. While this surge has emerged from push factors in Central America such as gang-related violence and pull factors in the United States like a severely backlogged immigration court system and rapid release of family members from government custody, the increased activity of smuggling cartels that move Central American migrants through Mexico has emerged as a key driver of these historic apprehension figures.
The CBP data shows that monthly apprehensions have continued to rise significantly since our last analysis of this data in March 2019. In May 2019, CBP apprehended 132,887 individuals between ports of entry1, a number that now ranks as the sixth highest peak in monthly Southwest border apprehensions since FY2000. While this number is still lower than the all-time peak of 220,063 apprehensions in March 2000, it marks a continued surge that has started passing monthly levels not seen since April 2005 when CBP apprehended 140,062 individuals.
Figure 1: Monthly Southwest Border Apprehensions (FY2000-FY2019)
The total number of apprehensions in the first eight months of FY2019 has reached a level unseen in a decade. As Figure 2 shows, apprehensions during these first eight months totaled 593,507, which is higher than the 540,862 apprehensions recorded in FY2009. While these levels remain low compared to the historic peak in FY2000 when immigration authorities apprehended 1.6 million individuals, they show that the decline in apprehensions since that year has completely reversed itself as the rise in Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico has offset the drop in Mexican migrants attempting entry into the United States.
Figure 2: Yearly Southwest Border Apprehensions (FY1980-FY2019)2
The May 2019 CBP data also shows that the number of family units apprehended at the border has hit new historic highs. As Figure 3 shows, the number of family unit apprehensions hit 84,542, a level that simply has no other historic precedent in border apprehensions data since CBP began tracking families. In the case of unaccompanied children, immigration authorities detained 11,507 individuals, a number that surpasses the previous peak month of June 2014 when 10,620 children were encountered at the border. Finally, the number of individual adult (i.e. non-UAC, non-family unit) apprehensions has also increased significantly. In May 2019, CBP apprehended 36,838 individuals, which is close to a May 2013 peak of 38,556 individuals apprehended.
Figure 3: Categories of Southwest Border Apprehensions (FY2012-FY2019)
The latest CBP data also shows that family unit apprehensions have emerged as the largest percentage of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. As Figure 4 shows, the percentage of family units apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border increased from 28 percent in October 2016 to 64 percent in May 2019, a trend that began accelerating in August 2018 when the percentage of family encounters began moving steadily upwards, crossing the 50 percent threshold in December 2018 for the first time. At the same time, the percentage of individual apprehensions dropped from 57 percent to 28 percent during the same period as CBP apprehended more family units and UACs.
Figure 4: Percent Breakdown of Categories of Southwest Border Apprehensions (FY2012-FY2019)
The latest CBP data has led observers to ask why this surge is occurring now. While various factors have generated this surge, smugglers and cartels have played a major role in transporting increasing numbers of Central American migrants from their countries to the United States through Mexico. These cartels use sales pitches that urge potential migrants to leave before the United States closes its borders, a strategy that has become more potent as President Trump continues to explore ways to restrict migrant access to the U.S.-Mexico border. To be sure, gang-related violence, the lack of economic opportunities, and corruption push many Central American migrants to emigrate, seeking protection in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Mexico. Furthermore, the immigration court backlog has resulted in the release of most of these arrivals into the United States to await their turn to make their case, allowing them to remain in the United States for two or more years before the final adjudication of their cases. As prior migrants report back to their neighbors and relatives that they have successfully entered the United States, it encourages more to make the journey. However, the presence of “enabling factors” like smuggling cartels that make it easier for migrants to travel from Central America to the United States will continue to drive this surge, making security cooperation between Mexico and the United States on this issue extremely important in managing this regional migration crisis.
1 Our analysis of excludes individuals who CBP deemed inadmissible at ports of entry because CBP does not distinguish those who claim asylum from those who do not. However, the latest data shows an increase in the number of family units and unaccompanied children arriving at these ports as well. ↩
2 FY2019 only includes October through May of that fiscal year. ↩