As the number of apprehensions at the border increased over the past two years, Customs and Border Protection noted an important pattern: the number of people being stopped at the border more than one time in a month was increasing. This inflates the monthly totals, since what is reported is stops, not people.
Imagine, for example, if you stopped 200 people at the border one day and 200 the next day — 100 of whom had been stopped the day prior. That’s 400 stops, but only 300 individual people.
This is important largely because that top-line figure, the number of apprehensions, has become central to the political debate. As I wrote earlier this week, misrepresentation of the number of people crossing the border muddies the politics of immigration, often intentionally. More than half of those stopped at the border since January 2021, for example, were removed under a contested policy known as Title 42, which bars any entry. Yet those stops are often included in rhetoric about immigrants pouring into the country.
That said, new data obtained by the research center TRAC at the University of Syracuse show that the percentage of people turned away under Title 42 who had previously been encountered at the border didn’t change significantly during the first year and a half the policy was in place. In other words, while on a month-to-month basis the Border Patrol says it is encountering people already stopped in the same month, the percentage of apprehensions involving people with prior stops has been fairly steady.
The TRAC data index each of the more than 1.2 million Title 42 removals from mid-March 2020 to September 2021. The data include some remarkable findings, including that more than 4,000 of the stops involved people who had been encountered by Border Patrol at least 20 times previously. One person from Mexico turned away in September 2021 had been encountered at the border 81 times previously. The data match stops with records going back only 20 years, so it’s possible that number is actually higher.
There is also record of an unaccompanied minor from Mexico being turned away under Title 42 who had been stopped 72 times previously. This, again, is someone under age 18. The records also indicate Title 42 stops of unaccompanied minors who had been encountered 68, 69, 70 and 71 times previously. It’s not a stretch to assume that these are all the same individual, stopped five times in the period at issue and removed under Title 42 each time. If so, it’s a good example of how apprehension numbers don’t reflect actual people.
Update: As Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council notes, it’s possible that the minor stopped more than 70 times was employed as a migrant smuggler. Minors have often been used in that role, recognizing that they will face lesser penalties if caught.
In total, about 3 in 5 removals under Title 42 during this period were of people who had previously been encountered by officials at the border. A quarter were of people who had been encountered at least three times previously.
While the percentage of removals involving people who had been encountered at the border previously didn’t change much during the period, the composition of who was turned away certainly did. In the first three months of the period being considered, nearly half of those turned away were single Mexican adults who either had never been encountered at the border before or who had been encountered three or more times in the past 20 years.
By the end of the period, the single largest category of those turned away under Title 42 was people from outside Mexico or Mexican families and children who had never been encountered at the border previously.
If we look at this as a percentage, you can see how the pattern shifts. The percentage of those turned away who had been encountered previously stays in the range of 56 to 62 percent. (That’s the darker-colored sections in the middle of the chart below.) But those who had never been encountered before shifted from mostly Mexican adults traveling individually to mostly arrivals from outside of that category.
That chart also reflects indirectly how people from outside of Mexico are making up an increasing percentage of those stopped at the border. Much of the surge in arrivals over the past two years has been individuals and families from countries like Venezuela, places where political instability is driving them north. Often, though, such individuals will seek asylum upon arrival at the border and not be turned away.
Since he took office, President Biden has faced pressure to end the Title 42 policy, implemented under President Donald Trump pretextually as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. The data obtained by TRAC show how Title 42 both aids and hinders Biden politically: it allows his administration to allow fewer immigrants into the country, reducing strain on existing resources, but it also likely contributes to the high number of apprehensions each month.
It also depicts what TRAC aptly describes as the “remarkable persistence” of some individuals. Imagine running into officials at the border 81 times … and then trying yet again.