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How to understand the latest immigration numbers

Migrants from Haiti make their way toward El Paso on Monday from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)
7 min

There is no question that the number of people stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border has surged in the past two years. Data from Customs and Border Protection indicate that more than 3.6 million people have been prevented from entering the country or apprehended after having done so.

This does not mean, though, that 3.6 million people illegally immigrated to the United States or that the nation is now 3.6 million residents larger. Given the rhetoric surrounding the increase in border stops, it’s worth considering who is included in that number — and what happens to them after they are stopped.

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Who is being stopped?

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

On average, about 183,000 people have been stopped 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 chart shows the relative number of total stops. Each circle is divided into constituent groups, which is more useful in later graphs in this article.

At the outset of Biden’s term in office, the vast majority of those stopped at the border were adults traveling by themselves. In January 2021, 9 in 10 of those stopped 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 members of families — adults and related children traveling together.

A more significant change is in the number of arrivals from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the green group below). In January 2021, nearly 9 in 10 of those stopped 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. — was up nearly tenfold.

Who isn’t being stopped?

Those who see the increase in stops at the border as indicative of a failure to prevent illegal immigration often point to estimates of the number of people who weren’t stopped. After all, the Border Patrol can’t and doesn’t catch everyone sneaking into the United States.

This is true, but it is often rooted in a failure to understand how border protection has changed in recent years. Data from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that north of 80 percent of those seeking to enter the country illegally were stopped in 2019, up substantially in the past decade or two. In part, that is a function of increased use of technology; in part it’s because of expanded barriers on the border both under George W. Bush and Donald Trump. In part, too, it’s probably a function of why many of those crossing the border are being stopped, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The effect, though, is that the combined number of people both stopped at the border and entering illegally is probably lower now than it was 15 to 20 years ago.

What’s happening to those who are stopped?

CBP data can be broken out into three groups: those apprehended, those deemed inadmissible and those stopped and expelled from the country.

This last group is the most controversial. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic the Trump administration instituted a policy of quickly deporting people stopped at the border, citing a regulation that leveraged public health concerns. The Biden administration continued that policy over the objection of many of the administration’s allies until moving to lift the policy (called Title 42 after the section of code it depends on) this year. In May, a judge prevented the policy from being ended.

The data also include people stopped at border crossings as they seek entry, those deemed “inadmissible.” In other words, among the stops are people who tried to enter at a border checkpoint but were prevented from doing so.

Since the beginning of Biden’s term in office, the number of apprehensions — people stopped after entering the country — has increased as a percentage of the total number of stops. In January 2021, about 16 percent of stops were apprehensions. Last month, more than half were.

But consider what that means: Most of those who’ve been stopped at the border since January 2021 were expelled from the country under Title 42 — nearly 1.9 million of the nearly 3.7 million total stops.

That has two effects relevant to the political debate. The first is that it means far fewer people remain in the United States than the top-line figure would suggest. When the Republican Party releases a statement blasting the number of people who have “crossed the border” under Biden — as it did on Monday — it doesn’t mention that most of those people were quickly removed or slated for removal.

It also means that a lot of the people removed from the United States simply come back to the border and try again. Since Title 42 was put in place, the percentage of people stopped multiple times in a month has soared. 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 individuals stopped at the border increased only 30 percent.

Those who are allowed to stay in the country, meanwhile, remain in detention. Again, rhetoric would suggest that millions of people crossed the border into the United States where they roamed free. But the reality is that most of those not removed remain in detention.

That’s less likely for families or children. A reason that surges in the number of children stopped at the border increase the strain on federal resources is that the rules for detaining kids are (understandably) more strict. Families are often released from custody to await hearings. About 920,000 of those stopped at the border and not expelled are families or children traveling alone (about 270,000).

One 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 out authorities to whom they can turn themselves in. There’s a legal process by which asylum claims are adjudicated, during which time immigrants are allowed to remain in the United States. When you hear assertions about people entering the country illegally, that does not mean that they are not legally allowed to remain in the United States, particularly if awaiting an asylum hearing.

This certainly helps account for some of the surge in people arriving from countries such as Venezuela. Last month, the United Nations announced that the number of refugees from Venezuela around the world was about equivalent to the number from Ukraine. Many of them are making their way north to the United States.

There’s no question that the number of people seeking to come to the United States is straining resources and the ability of state and federal officials to respond. But it is not the case that millions of people are pouring over the border unchecked. It’s likely that, despite the recent increase in border stops, fewer people are being stopped or escaping into the United States than 20 years ago. And of those who have been stopped since the beginning of 2021, less than half remain in the country. And only a portion of those who remain end up being released to await a hearing.

The situation is complicated. Which is one reason uncomplicated political rhetoric gets so much traction.