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The End of Catch and Release? MPP by the Numbers

The Brief

A review of existing governmental and non-government data on the Migrant Protection Protocols shows that the program has sent back more migrants to Mexico. However, it remains unclear if it has produced the enforcement outcomes that the Trump administration has touted in recent months, showing the need to publish systematic data about the program.

In January 2019, the Trump administration introduced the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as MPP or “Remain in Mexico,” in response to the increase of Central American migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The program sought to end “catch and release,” instances when the Department of Homeland Security releases asylum seekers detained at the border into the United States to await their immigration court hearing. As we noted previously, MPP returns migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border who have been processed for immigration court proceedings to await their hearings. Although the Trump administration has claimed that the program demonstrated “operational effectiveness,” it has not published regular, systemic data about its operations to assess these claims or the program’s scope.

In order to try to address this gap, we reviewed existing government, non-governmental, and media sources that tracked how many migrants have become MPP returnees between January and September 2019. Although DHS has sent more migrants to Mexico under MPP, our analysis found that the U.S. government did not divert a significant percentage of Southwest border apprehensions to Mexico between January and September 2019. These findings suggest that MPP has not ended “catch and release,” and that at least for fiscal year 2019, more migrants were released into the U.S. than sent back to Mexico. Releasing more data will be necessary if DHS wants to continue to claim its efficacy in ending catch and release.

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Sources of MPP Return Data

Our review of MPP returns data found that the U.S. government has not published consistent or comprehensive records of the program’s operations. The U.S. government has not published data for monthly returns and only sporadically publicly announced cumulative return data. However, three non-governmental and media organizations have tracked this data at various points between January and September:

  1. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, has reviewed court records from the Executive Office for Immigration Review to track MPP-related immigration court cases between January 2019 and the present.1
  2. Reuters produced charts that used information from Mexican immigration officials to track cumulative MPP returns in semi-monthly intervals between February and July 2019. Subtracting prior monthly estimates from each cumulative interval yields approximate monthly MPP returns for this period.
  3. Human Rights First published an August 2019 report that used monthly estimates from media reports with U.S. and Mexican government estimates and other sources.

Media outlets including the New York Time2 and The San Diego Union-Tribune3 have also produced intermittent monthly return estimates during the program’s operations.

We found that both government and media sources have produced intermittent cumulative estimates of MPP returnees between June and September 2019. In September 2019, for instance, DHS confirmed in a press conference that 42,000 individuals went through the program. In October 2019, DHS produced an assessment of the program stating that it had returned 55,000 individuals to Mexico between January and September 2019. The Mexican government issued some estimates of these returns in summer 2019, noting that 20,000 migrants had been returned to the country by July 2019. Finally, several media outlets began publishing estimates after June 2019 that did not cite specific sources, reporting that the United States returned between 50,000 to 51,000 migrants by September 2019.4

MPP’s Impact on Release of Migrants into the U.S. and Southwest Border Arrivals

The data review raises questions about the program’s efficacy. In order to calculate the proportion of migrants DHS diverted to Mexico through MPP, we compared the 55,000 cumulative MPP returns as of September 2019 to the cumulative Southwest border apprehensions for family units and single adults for the same period, 659,573. (Figure 2) We did not include unaccompanied children in this analysis since DHS exempts them from MPP. We found that DHS diverted 8.6% of these migrants to Mexico, meaning that DHS still released a significant number of migrants into the United States to await their immigration court hearing.

These estimates have three caveats. Our total apprehensions figure includes Mexican migrants and other populations who are not subject to MPP14, since breakout numbers for these groups were not available.15 Further, DHS announced it was rolling out the program slowly to accommodate the Mexican government’s requirements, meaning that it had not reached full operational capacity in the earlier months. Finally, a federal court enjoined the policy for several months at the beginning of the year, impacting total MPP return numbers for the period. In light of these considerations, our analysis suggests that MPP did not immediately end “catch and release” over the last year.

Figure 2: Comparison of Cumulative MPP Returns to Cumulative Southwest Border Apprehensions (January 2019 to September 2019)

Sources: TRAC, CBS News, Mexican Government, CRS, DHS (1)(2)

Comparing monthly MPP returns to monthly Southwest border apprehensions shows that increasing MPP returns coincided with a decline in family unit apprehensions. As Figure 3 shows, family unit apprehensions decreased from 84,486 to 15,824 as monthly MPP returns grew. The same relationship appears when comparing monthly MPP returns to single adult monthly apprehensions. While these trends suggest that MPP may have deterred border arrivals, this decrease also corresponds with the Mexican government’s clampdown on Central American migrants, other administrative border enforcement changes  limiting asylum, and seasonal fluctuations in migrant movements. As a result, it is difficult to conclusively state that MPP solely generated this apprehension drop by September 2019.

Figure 3: Comparison of Monthly MPP Returns to Monthly Southwest Border Apprehensions (January 2019 to September 2019)

Conclusion: A Call for More Data on MPP

This analysis raises questions about assessing the program’s efficacy and impact on arrivals at the Southwest border using government data. The absence of a comprehensive MPP database that tracks monthly and cumulative return numbers makes it difficult to confirm whether the program has produced the enforcement outcomes that the administration has touted in recent months. Furthermore, this data vacuum also prevents the public from assessing the program’s scale of operations and impact on migrants that go through the MPP process, including understanding which categories of migrants are returned to Mexico, their conditions while there, and their immigration court case status. While DHS may have reservations about providing MPP opponents with data to criticize the program, releasing this information is the only way to fully examine its outcomes, especially as it emerges as one of the Trump administration’s primary vehicles to control migration to the Southwest border.

End Notes


The author would like to thank Kayiraba Toure for assisting with gathering data sources for this blog post.

1 This blog post used the data that TRAC uploaded to its website on December 6, 2019.
2 The New York Times reported on August 18, 2019 that “Trump administration sent back to Mexico nearly 32,000 asylum seekers. Nearly half of these asylum seekers were sent back in the last month.” This statement implies that 16,000 individuals were sent back between July 18 and August 18.
3 The San Diego Union Tribune reported that 73 individuals had been sent back under MPP in late January 2019.
4 See for instance: CBS News, NBC News, and Reuters.
5 The date ranges for the Reuters monthly return figures span irregular weekly periods between January and July 2019, leading us to incorporate them into Figures 1 and 3 using the following structure: February in Figures 1 and 3 covers 63 returns between January 29 to February 13; March in Figures 1 and 3 covers 379 returns between February 14 and March 26; April in Figures 1 and 3 covers 1,546 returns between March 27 and April 22; May in Figures 1 and 3 covers 5,199 returns between April 23 and May 20; June in Figures 1 and 3 covers 5,838 returns between May 21 and June 8; July in Figures 1 and 3 covers 7,466 returns between June 9 and July 7.
6 The date ranges for the Human Rights First monthly return figures span irregular weekly periods between January and July 2019, leading us to incorporate them into Figures 1 and 3 using the following structure: February in Figures 1 and 3 covers 240 returns between January 29 to March 12; March in Figures 1 and 3 covers 865 returns between March 13 to April 8; April in Figures 1 and 3 covers 3,112 returns between April 13 to May 6; May in Figures 1 and 3 covers 6,176 returns between May 7 to June 5; June in Figures 1 and 3 covers 8,120 returns between June 6 to July 7; July in Figures 1 and 3 covers 7,852 total returns between July 8 to July 11 (1,398 returns), July 22 to July 28 (3,140 returns), and July 29 to August 4 (3,314 returns).
7 As noted previously, an August 18, 2019 New York Times piece implied that 16,000 individuals were sent back between July 18 and August 18. We included this figure in the “Other Sources Monthly Returns” data for August 2019.
8 The San Diego Union Tribune reported that 73 individuals had been sent back under MPP in late January 2019, which we included in the “Other Sources Monthly Returns” for January 2019.
9 The sources reviewed for this study did not produce estimates for cumulative returns between January and September 2019. As a result, we generated the cumulative returns curve in Figures 1 and 2 in two steps. First, we successively added the monthly MPP returns in TRAC’s analysis to produce cumulative estimates between January and May 2019. We used the TRAC numbers since they represent concrete MPP cases in the immigration court system. We subsequently used news and government reports that cited U.S. or Mexican government cumulative MPP returns for June through September 2019. Footnotes 11 through 14 breaks down these sources in greater detail.
10 CBS News reported in June 25, 2019 that Mexican officials estimated that 15,079 individuals had been returned under MPP, which we included for our June 2019 cumulative figure.
11 In July 2019, the Mexican government issued a press release stating that 20,000 individuals had been returned under MPP between January and July 2019, which we included for our July 2019 cumulative figure.
12 A September 2019 Congressional Research report noted that DHS confirmed that 42,000 migrants had returned under MPP, which we included for our August 2019 cumulative figure.
13 In October 2019, DHS issued an MPP assessment stating that it sent back over 55,000 individuals during the first nine months of 2019, which we used for the September 2019 cumulative figure.
14 In addition to unaccompanied children and Mexican nationals, MPP does not apply to individuals in expedited removal proceedings. DHS also has discretion to exempt individuals from “vulnerable populations” on a case-by-case basis.
15 For instance, CBP does not include the nationality of individuals apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border or of individuals put through expedited removal in its monthly apprehensions data.

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