How to understand the latest immigration figures

There is no question that the number of people apprehended at the US-Mexico border has increased in the last two years. Customs and Border Protection data indicates that more than 3.6 million people have been prevented from entering the country or detained after having done so.

However, this does not mean that 3.6 million people immigrated to the United States illegally or that the nation now has 3.6 million more residents. Given the rhetoric surrounding the rise in border apprehensions, it is worth considering who is included in that number and what happens to them after they are apprehended.

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In January 2021, the first month President Biden was in office (albeit for only a third), there were 78,414 stops at the US-Mexico border. The following month there were more than 100,000, a number that has been exceeded every month since.

On average, some 183,000 people have been apprehended at the border each month. The month with the highest number of stops was May, in which more than 241,000 people were stopped.

This graph shows the relative number of total stops. Each circle is broken down into constituent groups, which is most useful in later charts in this article.

At the start of Biden’s term, the vast majority of people apprehended at the border were adults traveling alone. In January 2021, 9 out of 10 detainees fell into that category. In July and August, the figure was closer to three-quarters, with a significant portion of the total (about 16 percent each month) made up of family members: adults and related children traveling together.

A more significant change is the number of arrivals from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the green group below). In January 2021, almost 9 out of 10 of those detained were from one of those four countries. In August, less than half were.

Last month, the number of stops involving people from Mexico and those three Central American nations was 44 percent higher than in January 2021. The number of stops involving people from other countries (Haiti, Venezuela, etc. ) almost multiplied by ten.

Who is not being stopped?

Those who see the increase in border stops as an indicator of a failure to prevent illegal immigration often point to estimates of the number of people they were not stopped. After all, the Border Patrol cannot and does not catch everyone who sneaks into the United States.

This is true, but it is often rooted in a lack of understanding of how border protection has changed in recent years. Data from the Department of Homeland Security indicates that more than 80 percent of people seeking to enter the country illegally were apprehended in 2019, a substantial increase over the past decade or two. In part, that’s a function of increased use of technology; in part it is due to the expansion of border barriers under George W. Bush and Donald Trump. In part, too, it’s probably a function of why so many border crossers are stopped, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The effect, however, is that the combined number of people who stopped at the border and entered illegally is probably less now than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

What is happening to those who are detained?

The CBP data can be divided into three groups: those detained, those deemed inadmissible, and those detained and removed from the country.

This last group is the most controversial. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration instituted a policy of speedy deportation of people apprehended at the border, citing regulation that took advantage of public health concerns. The Biden administration continued with that policy over the objection of many of the administration’s allies until it decided to lift the policy (called Title 42 after the code section on which it depends) this year. In May, a judge prevented the policy from being terminated.

The data also includes people stopped at border crossings while trying to enter, those deemed “inadmissible”. That is, among the arrests are people who tried to enter a border checkpoint but were prevented from doing so.

Since the start of Biden’s term, the number of arrests (people apprehended after entering the country) has increased as a percentage of the total number of arrests. In January 2021, about 16 percent of stops were arrests. Last month, more than half were.

But consider what that means: The majority of people who have been apprehended at the border since January 2021 were removed from the country under Title 42 — nearly 1.9 million of the nearly 3.7 million total apprehensions.

This has two relevant effects for the political debate. The first is that it means there are far fewer people left in the United States than the headline figure would suggest. When the GOP puts out a statement criticizing the number of people who “crossed the border” under Biden, as he did on Monday, it fails to mention that most of those people were quickly removed or scheduled to be removed.

It also means that many of those removed from the United States simply go back to the border and try again. Since Title 42 was implemented, the percentage of people detained multiple times in a month has skyrocketed. Earlier this year, CBP reported that the number of “encounters” at the border increased 82 percent from 2019 to 2021, but the number of unique people apprehended at the border increased by only 30 percent.

Meanwhile, those who are allowed to remain in the country remain in detention. Again, the rhetoric would suggest that millions of people crossed the border into the United States, where they roamed freely. But the reality is that most of those who were not expelled remain in detention.

That is less likely for families or children. One of the reasons that the increase in the number of children detained at the border increases the pressure on federal resources is that the rules for detaining children are (understandably) stricter. Families are often released from custody pending hearings. About 920,000 of those detained at the border and not removed are families or children traveling alone (about 270,000).

An additional complicating factor is the increase in people seeking asylum in the United States. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of people who say they are seeking asylum when they are detained at the border; some immigrants actively seek authorities to whom they can turn themselves in. There is a legal process by which asylum claims are adjudicated, during which immigrants are allowed to remain in the United States. When you hear claims about people entering the country illegally, that doesn’t mean they aren’t legally allowed stay in the United States, particularly if you are awaiting an asylum hearing.

This certainly helps explain some of the increase in people arriving from countries like Venezuela. Last month, the United Nations announced that the number of refugees from Venezuela worldwide was equivalent to the number from Ukraine. Many of them head to the northern United States.

There is no question that the number of people seeking to come to the United States is straining the resources and responsiveness of state and federal officials. But it is not the case that millions of people cross the border without control. It is likely that, despite the recent increase in border stops, fewer people are being detained or fleeing to the United States than were 20 years ago. And of those detained since the beginning of 2021, less than half remain in the country. And only part of those who remain end up being released pending a hearing.

The situation is complicated. That is one of the reasons why uncomplicated political rhetoric has such force.

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