U.S. authorities detained more than 1.7 million migrants along the Mexico border during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, and arrests by the Border Patrol soared to the highest levels ever recorded, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post.
Illegal crossings began rising last year but skyrocketed in the months after President Joe Biden took office. As CBP arrests increased this past spring, Biden described the rise as consistent with historical seasonal norms. But the busiest months came during the sweltering heat of July and August, when more than 200,000 migrants were taken into custody.
During a confirmation hearing Tuesday for Chris Magnus, the Tucson police chief Biden has nominated to lead CBP, Republican senators pressed him to characterize the surge as a “crisis.”
Magnus called it a “significant challenge,” echoing the Biden administration’s preferred term, adding that “the numbers are very high.” CBP is expected to release the 2021 fiscal year data later this week.
Border enforcement has become a major political liability for Biden, and the president’s handling of immigration remains his worst-polling issue. He promised on the campaign trail to make the United States more welcoming to immigrants, in contrast to former president Donald Trump, whose zero-tolerance family separations generated widespread outrage in 2018.
During the transition, Biden said he wanted to move cautiously on immigration policy and avoid ending up “with 2 million people on our border.”
Once in office, Biden quickly halted construction on the border wall, ended the “Remain in Mexico” policy, reversed key asylum restrictions and announced a 100-day pause on most deportations and enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Biden officials initially blamed the previous administration’s policies for the increase in border crossings and said migration pressures intensified as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout. Many migrants have told reporters they opted to make the risky journey north, at great cost and considerable danger, with the belief that Biden would allow them to stay. A tight U.S. labor market became another pull.
Earlier this year, Biden directed Vice President Kamala Harris to address the “root causes” of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle nations – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But the strategy has had little to no measurable effect, and Harris has distanced herself from the border and immigration issues generally.
The latest CBP data indicates that the administration’s challenges extend far beyond Central America. Mexico was the single largest source of illegal migration during the 2021 fiscal year, as the Border Patrol arrested more than 608,000 Mexican nationals. That leaves the Biden administration in an awkward position, as it increasingly relies on Mexico to tighten enforcement and block caravan groups heading north.
Biden officials are in negotiations with Mexico to comply with federal court orders to restart the “Remain in Mexico” policy requiring asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their cases are processed.
The second-largest grouping was composed of migrants from outside Mexico and Central America whom CBP categorized as “other,” including Haitians, Venezuelans, Ecuadorans, Cubans, Brazilians and migrants from dozens of other nations. They accounted for 367,000 arrests.
They were followed by migrants from Honduras (309,000), Guatemala (279,000) and El Salvador (96,000).
“Migration to the U.S.-Mexico border is now truly global,” said Cris Ramón, an independent immigration consultant in Washington. “The implications for immigration policy require a far more comprehensive approach because it’s not enough to say you have to deter migration from Mexico or Central America. This has become a far more complex problem for the administration to deal with.”
More than 1.3 million migrants have been taken into custody along the southern border in the nine months since Biden took office, including 192,000 last month, the latest CBP figures show.
In the fiscal years between 2012 and 2020, border arrests averaged about 540,000. The 2021 figure was more than three times that amount.
The extraordinary influx has produced a series of crises for the administration, starting this spring with record numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing without parents who were crowded shoulder to shoulder into Border Patrol tents.
Crossings by Central American family groups overwhelmed U.S. agents this summer, and in September, the sudden arrival of 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants to a crude camp in Del Rio, Tex., produced politically damaging scenes of chaos and harsh enforcement tactics by Border Patrol agents on horseback.
Immigrant advocates who backed Biden’s candidacy have soured on his presidency lately, with several staging a virtual walkout last weekend during a meeting with White House policy advisers. Biden’s proposals for a major immigration overhaul are stalled in Congress, and Republicans are planning to use his border record as a cudgel in next year’s midterm elections.
The Biden administration has responded to criticism of the arrest numbers by noting that it continues to use the Title 42 public health policy to rapidly “expel” most adult border crossers to Mexico or their home countries.
Of the 1.7 million detained during the 2021 fiscal year, 61% were expelled under Title 42, the CBP data shows.
The expulsions have led to a significant increase in repeat crossing attempts by migrants who are turned back, so the number of distinct individuals taken into custody is lower than the number of arrests recorded. Recidivism rates have exceeded 25% in recent months, twice as high as in previous years, according to CBP figures.
“You could not reach the numbers we reached this year without recidivist border crossings,” Ramón said.
The 1.7 million figure includes migrants arrested between ports of entry by the Border Patrol as well as those who attempted to enter the United States without authorization through official ports of entry who were detained by blue-uniformed CBP officers.
During the 2021 fiscal year, agents apprehended 1.66 million along the Mexico border only, the latest figures show. That exceeds the 1.64 million taken into custody in 2000 along the Mexico border, according to historic data.
Those figures do not include the unknown number of migrants who successfully evaded capture after making an illegal entry that was detected by CBP sensors, video cameras or agents.
The Border Patrol refers to such entries as “gotaway” incidents, and while the agency does not publish gotaway estimates, officials have reported averages of more than 1,000 per day in recent months.
CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector was the busiest during the 2021 fiscal year, with 549,000 Border Patrol apprehensions, followed by the Del Rio sector, with 259,000, which eclipsed historically busier sectors such as El Paso and Tucson.
The CBP figures show declines in seizures of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Analysts attribute the decrease to diminished vehicle traffic through ports of entry as a result of pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as fewer interdictions by overstretched border agents.