Illegal border crossings hit a decade-long high in February. They’re still historically low. Here’s why

Border Patrol agents detain Guatemalan migrants in Arizona this week. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Trump administration officials say an increase in Central American families and minors seeking asylum has brought the immigration system to the “breaking point.” The 66,450 migrants arrested crossing the southwestern border in February — a rate of more than 2,300 per day — was more than almost any month in the last decade.

Yet illegal crossings remain at historical lows overall. In fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. agents arrested 396,579 people at the U.S.-Mexico border. From the 1980s into the mid-2000s, that number routinely surpassed 1 million, hitting a high of more than 1.6 million arrests in 2000.

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This seeming discrepancy in the significance of the latest figures has allowed both sides to seize on the interpretation that fits their argument.

President Trump cites the near-term increase to buttress his case for a national emergency, which he declared to enable him to bypass Congress and divert more than $6 billion in federal funds for his long-promised border wall. Many lawmakers scrutinizing the border situation and the administration’s response point to the long-term trend.

“They’re confusing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said of officials’ conflicting assessments in a hearing Wednesday. “In the short term, apprehensions at the border are up…. In the longer term, I’m told that total apprehensions at the border last year were actually … their fifth-lowest levels over the past 46 years.”

In the same hearing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) used the latest statistics to rebut criticism that the president’s emergency is nonexistent.

“In order to believe that there's a fake emergency at the border, you have to be blind to the facts or simply unwilling to listen,” he said.

Yet Trump administration policies intended to deter migrants may be contributing to the recent increase, even as immigration overall remains at historical lows.

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A spring increase?

Combining the number of migrants arrested crossing the border illegally and those arriving at ports of entry without authorization, last month’s total of 76,103 represents a 31% increase over January.

Migration tends to tick up in spring in response to labor demands in the United States. Yet over the last five months, the number of total apprehensions was already high, at 318,407, putting unauthorized migration on pace for its highest level in a decade.

Still, even a decade ago, in 2009, which was President Obama’s first year in office, mass migration was at a low compared with the decades before, as a global recession discouraged many would-be migrants — primarily single Mexican males — from going north for work.

Who is coming

The system is overwhelmed not only by how many are coming, but also by what kinds of people are coming, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified at a separate hearing Wednesday.

In February, U.S. authorities stopped 7,249 unaccompanied minors and 40,385 family units. Lone minors and families traveling together, mostly from Central America, represented a majority, or 62%, of all apprehensions.

“Our capacity is already severely strained, but these increases will overwhelm the system entirely,” Nielsen said. “This is not a manufactured crisis. This is truly an emergency.”

Though the numbers of children arriving at the border alone have stayed relatively steady, overall this year immigration authorities have seen a 300% increase in the number of family units compared with 2018, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This trend has exceeded the capacity of the handful of detention facilities dedicated to families and children, creating a bottleneck that’s backed up into space intended as temporary holding facilities.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it had been asked by the Department of Health and Human Services to find space for a potential 5,000 unaccompanied minors at Defense Department facilities.

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Where they’re crossing

In 2017, the Border Patrol encountered only two groups of 100 or more people crossing the border. Last year, it was 13. So far this year, there have been 70, with more than 12,000 total migrants stopped.

They are increasingly crossing at remote parts of the border, often at the behest of smugglers or guides known as coyotes, where rugged terrain and short staffing at border facilities can lead to dangerous health conditions.

In December, two migrant children died in U.S. custody, leading Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to announce Tuesday new measures to ensure sufficient medical care for migrants, including health screenings for all children and a new processing center in El Paso.

The El Paso sector, which covers remote New Mexico as well as western Texas, has seen a more than 400% increase in arrests, with a 1,689% increase in family units and 296% increase in unaccompanied minors, according to agency data.

What difference does a wall make?

Family units and unaccompanied minors, who come from Central America and voluntarily turn themselves in to agents to claim asylum, account for the majority of border arrests. They arrive in areas with barriers or without.

Today, some 70% of all crossings are by migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to McAleenan. Because Mexican migrants are more likely to be subject to expedited removal, given the proximity of their country, they are more likely to try to evade border agents.

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Nielsen struggled to explain how putting billions toward a border wall as Trump has demanded would address a dramatic increase in asylum claims and a backlog that’s reached some 800,000 cases.

In 2018, asylum claims at southwest border ports of entry increased by 120% — a record, McAleenan said. So far this year, they’ve grown by 90%.

‘Metering’ — making matters worse?

By continuing to limit the number of asylum seekers entering the United States at official ports, a practice known as “metering,” or by forcing them to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed, Trump administration officials are probably pushing some migrants to illegally cross between ports of entry.

That may account for why apprehensions, the most commonly used measure of illegal crossings, have seen dramatic upticks in recent months, while the number of those arriving at entry points without authorization has stayed relatively steady, around 10,000, since October.

The bottom line

Exacerbating a bottleneck of asylum seekers at official ports of entry, and thereby encouraging people to try to cross in increasingly remote border areas, might seem to buttress Trump’s emergency declaration and case for a wall. Yet the crisis-level numbers also undermine the president’s argument that after more than two years in the White House, his tough talk and aggressive approach to reducing immigration are working.

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