Why Illegal Border Crossings Are So High

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For the second year in a row, the number of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border surpassed two million, according to government data released this month.

Annual southwestern border apprehensions

By fiscal year, from October to September

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Note: Only encounters between ports of entry are shown.

The 2022 fiscal year set a record of 2.2 million illegal border crossings. These numbers do not include crossings at official checkpoints. Including those, migrant crossings in the 2023 fiscal year hit a record high.

Immigration is a major issue for President Biden. Republicans say his immigration policies are too weak to reduce numbers at the border. Members of his own party — like the mayors of Chicago and New York — have said their cities do not have enough resources to provide shelter and other assistance to the growing number of migrants.

Shifting U.S. policies, global migration patterns and changing migrant demographics all factor into the high levels of illegal border crossings of the past few years.

U.S. Policy Changes

Title 42, a pandemic-era immigration policy, had been used for more than three years to quickly expel migrants who have tried to cross the border illegally, on the grounds of public health. It was enacted by former President Donald J. Trump in March 2020 and expanded under the Biden administration.

The policy expired in May, and the number of border apprehensions dropped by more than 40 percent in June. Since then, the number of illegal border crossings has increased every month, and border patrol agents made nearly 220,000 apprehensions in September alone.

Monthly southwestern border apprehensions

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Note: Only encounters between ports of entry are shown.

Before Title 42 expired, the Biden administration had created more legal pathways of entry for migrants. At the same time, harsher punishments were established for crossing illegally. Government officials say this drove unlawful crossings down in May and June, as more migrants were using the new and expanded legal pathways. But experts say they never expected the drop to last.

“Every time we see changes in the border policies, we see a sort of a lull while everybody figures it out, and then we see increased numbers after that,” said Denise Gilman, a professor and director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Immigration Clinic.

Global Migration

Patterns of global migration contributed to the recent rise in illegal border crossings. For example, Venezuela’s economy crumbled about a decade ago, leading to a massive outflow of the country’s population. Gang violence in Central America has forced many to flee. Economic shock, violence and political forces have displaced millions and sent more people to the United States to seek refuge.

Historically, most migrants have come to the United States from Mexico, with growing numbers in the last decade from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). But more recently, migrants from other countries have accounted for nearly half of illegal border crossings.

Share of southwestern border apprehensions by migrants’ countries of origin

By fiscal year, from October to September

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Notes: Only encounters between ports of entry are shown.

For years, the United States and Mexico have had a diplomatic arrangement under which Mexico has agreed to accept Mexican migrants deported by the United States. Such an agreement is generally in place before the United States deports or expels migrants back to their home countries. When Title 42 was enacted, Mexico also agreed to accept expelled migrants from the Northern Triangle.

Migrants from other countries that lack these diplomatic relationships have taken their chances at the border, hoping to be released, at least temporarily, into the United States. In particular, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have shown up at the southern border since the beginning of the pandemic. They accounted for the third-most illegal border crossings in the past year, after Mexicans and Guatemalans.

Mexico later agreed to accept some migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. This month, the Biden administration began to deport migrants back to Venezuela, after its president agreed to accept them.

More Families

Single adults have previously accounted for a majority of border apprehensions. But U.S. border officials apprehended more family members trying to cross the border from June to September than in any previous full fiscal year.

It can be more difficult for border agents to detain, deport or otherwise enforce punishments on families than on single adults. There is a legal limit on how long children can be held, and the Biden administration ended the practice of detaining families in 2021.

Families may be responding to this, showing up at the border instead of waiting for an appointment at an official checkpoint or through a humanitarian program. From January to May, people in families crossing the border made up about a fifth of total border apprehensions. In both August and September, that share rose to about half.

Monthly southwestern border apprehensions, by demographic

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Note: Only encounters between ports of entry are shown.

Experts say the U.S. policies of trying to deter people from crossing cannot work long term. They say that although people want to be safe and follow the rules, legal pathways have limited capacity, location restrictions and long wait times. This leaves many migrants to try and enter the country whether or not they legally fit into the current policies.

“We have yet to see any restrictive border policy work in terms of actually keeping the numbers down at the border,” Ms. Gilman said. “It just doesn’t work that way because people are fleeing extremely dangerous situations.”

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