WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

16 Oct 2020 | Commentary

What New Official Data Tells Us About the Ongoing Tragedy at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The U.S. government’s 2020 fiscal year ended on September 30, and on October 14 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol component produced data about what happened at the U.S.-Mexico border in this pandemic-marred year. The numbers paint a stark picture of a man-made humanitarian disaster that, in the Trump administration’s fourth year, has entered a new phase.

We now have a picture of undocumented migrants who were apprehended at the border or who presented themselves at border crossings (ports of entry). We have at least some sense of where they were apprehended, where many came from, and whether they were adults, children, or families. We can see how many among those categories was permitted to approach a port of entry. And we know how many were summarily expelled under the Trump administration’s pandemic border measures.

Border Patrol apprehended 400,651 undocumented migrants during fiscal 2020. That may sound like a lot, but it was actually the 6th smallest annual number of migrant apprehensions during the past 48 years. If Border Patrol maintained its 2019 staffing strength of 16,700 agents at the border, then each agent apprehended an average of 24 migrants all year—2 per month.

400,651 apprehended migrants is 53 percent fewer than in 2019. And those who were children or family members dropped by 85 percent from last year. In the past several years, a large portion of apprehended kids and families were Central Americans seeking protection in the United States, fleeing some of the world’s worst gang and organized crime-tied violence, among other extreme political, economic, and environmental conditions. The Trump administration dealt severe blows to this vulnerable population. First, the “Remain in Mexico” program and other initiatives made it virtually impossible to access asylum at the border. Then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interpreted Centers for Disease Control (CDC) pandemic border measures to mean that it could rapidly expel all undocumented people apprehended at the border, even those seeking refuge.

Migration plummeted, especially between March and June. The number of apprehended migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras dropped by 83 percent. Mexico is again the number one country of citizenship for apprehended migrants.

More than 205,000 people have been expelled since March, often in as little as 90 minutes. As of August, 8,800 of them were unaccompanied children, who were returned unaccompanied, to an unknown fate. Every month, the number of expulsions is greater than the last: in September, 50,067 people were expelled under the CDC order, including 1,740 who had presented at official border crossings (ports of entry).

One category of migration, though, has steadily recovered since the CDC measures went into effect in March. Border Patrol’s apprehensions of single adults jumped from 22,397 in February—the last month before COVID-19 measures went into effect—to 47,207 in September, the largest single-adult apprehension figure in the nine years since CBP began furnishing monthly records.

The actual number of people is fewer than the number of apprehensions. Many of these single adults were counted more than once. The Washington Post reported that 37 percent of apprehended migrants this year were what CBP calls “recidivists”—people who had been apprehended already this year—up from 7 percent in 2019. Though the pandemic “expulsions” are a severe hardship for families seeking protection, they are just a speed bump for individual migrants who seek to avoid being apprehended. It means spending 90 minutes in Border Patrol custody, only to be returned and, in many cases, to attempt another crossing.

In June, WOLA warned that an increase in single adult migrants seeking to avoid apprehension means an increase in single adult migrants traveling through desert and wilderness areas where they risk death of dehydration and exposure. In Arizona, where since July Border Patrol has twice raided the encampment of a humanitarian group seeking to save migrants’ lives, the Humane Borders database reports the largest number of migrant remains recovered in the desert this year (177) since 2013—and that’s as of late September.

While Border Patrol hasn’t yet released its record of migrant bodies recovered in borderlands in 2020, we know that the agency found 7,293 during this century’s first 20 years. Hundreds of people continue to die very painful deaths on U.S. soil, and it is a direct result of U.S. border and migration policy.

Download a full packet of WOLA border data graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.