WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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18 Apr 2024 | Commentary

Why Is Migration Declining at the U.S.-Mexico Border in Early 2024?

The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped sharply during the first months of 2024. It is very rare to see migration decline from winter to spring, but that, so far, is what appears to be happening.

In brief:

  • The most significant reason points to a Mexican government crackdown on people transiting the country, which is bringing increasing reports of harm to migrants. Large numbers of people are currently bottled up throughout Mexico.
  • This is unsustainable. Past patterns, and current data from countries through which U.S.-bound migrants transit, tell us that the early 2024 migration drop will be temporary.
  • At the same time, a hard look at the numbers makes clear that the Texas state government’s hardline policies do not explain the decline and do not offer a way forward.
  • High levels of migration at the border are likely to resume in the medium term. Once that happens, migration will again appear unmanaged and the Biden administration may be tempted to “shut down” asylum access at the border as he has suggested. This would be a mistake: it would inflict grave harm on thousands of people, while any resulting drop in migration would—as with all past crackdowns—be only temporary. It also would violate U.S. and international law.
  • Instead of more crackdowns with temporary results, the U.S. government needs to overhaul a border security and immigration system that lags badly behind the growth—over the past decade—in migrants seeking protection. There is an urgent need to increase funding for the processing of asylum claims at the border, the management of cases while asylum seekers await trial, and efficient adjudication of those cases.
  • A system that dedicates fewer than 725 judges to a backlog of 3 million cases is unsustainable. The U.S. government needs to invest in an immigration and asylum system that is faster, fairer, and more humane. The situation at the border is not a crisis, it’s an administrative problem.


A sharp drop over three months

December 2023 was a record month at the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended migrants 249,737 times, the most of any month for which public monthly records exist ( since 2000). Another 52,244 people came to land-border ports of entry, most of them with appointments to seek protection, which they made using Customs and Border Protection’s “CBP One” smartphone app. Taken together, at least two-thirds of December’s migrants turned themselves in to U.S. authorities.

What happened after December was surprising: migration plummeted. Border Patrol’s January 2024 apprehensions dropped 50 percent from December. It was the steepest month-to-month drop in the nearly 25 years for which we have data. And migration levels remained similarly low in February and March of this year.

Data table


While still greater than the past 15 years’ norm, January, February, and March 2024 have seen the third, seventh, and eighth fewest Border Patrol migrant apprehensions of the Biden administration’s 38 months in office.

Especially unusual is the decline in migration persisting into March, with apprehensions actually dropping 2 percent from February. With its milder weather, springtime is usually a moment of increasing migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. This is only the second time this century that migration has declined from February to March.

Migration may still be declining now, in April. Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said at an April 10 hearing that Border Patrol had averaged 3,800 apprehensions per day over the previous three weeks. If April 2024 were to keep that pace, it would be the third-lightest month of the Biden administration’s 39 full months.

Often, such sharp drops accompany changes in U.S. policy. But there have been no policy changes, just unsuccessful legislation and talk of possible executive action to “shut down” access to asylum at the border. What explains the drop in migration?


Mexico cracks down on migrants again

Most of the answer lies with Mexico. Two days after Christmas 2023, near the end of the border’s record-breaking December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico City and met with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and other Mexican officials.

Shortly after Blinken and Makorkas’s trip, observers noted a sharp increase in the tempo of Mexican security and migration forces’ operations to interdict migrants. National Guard, military, and National Migration Institute (INM) personnel established new checkpoints on main roads. They increased patrols in known transit areas. They began pulling more people off of northbound freight trains. They set up a camp at a site east of San Diego where asylum seekers had been crossing in large numbers. They deployed hundreds of personnel to Ciudad Juárez.

In January and February, Mexico’s migration forces shattered their single-month migrant apprehensions record (97,969 apprehensions in November 2023), stopping 120,005 migrants in January and 119,943 in February. (Mexico hasn’t reported March data yet.)

Data table


While Mexico has reported 240,000 migrant apprehensions in January and February, it reports deporting just 6,555 of them during those months. Recent laws and court rulings generally prohibit Mexico from detaining migrant children, or holding adult migrants in detention for more than 36 hours (though it does happen). Instead of detaining or deporting, Mexico’s government appears to be massively busing apprehended migrants away from its northern border, sending them to destinations deep in the country’s interior or back to the southern border.

Mexican forces’ stepped-up operations have come with more allegations of abuse. “At least 55” migrants detained in Torreón, Coahuila on April 8, “including women and children, reported that the agents detained them for several hours, beat them, and stole money, cell phones, and documents before releasing them,” reported La Jornada. In Empalme, Sonora on April 5, Mexican soldiers threatened humanitarian workers who were offering assistance to migrants near the local railroad tracks, according to the Sonora-based Proyecto Puente. An April 10 communiqué from 49 Mexican human rights groups detailed abuse allegations in Chihuahua: National Migration Institute (INM) agents roughing up a migrant while trying to keep a reporter from filming; abandoning 55 people, including children, at a gas station; and chasing a large group of people, including children, from a train station.

While Mexico has slowed the flow of migrants for a few months, its crackdown is far from a long-term solution. People hoping to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities are now backed up throughout Mexico. This is clear with the jump in wait times for CBP One appointments, as the agency refuses any further increases to the number of appointments available to protection-seeking migrants at land-border ports of entry.

Data Table


A March 1 report from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center reported that CBP One wait times were reaching six months at some ports of entry. Now, Human Rights First advocates visiting Nogales this week report CBP One wait times of seven to eight months. (To make an appointment, users must be in a geographic area of Mexico that is north of, or including, Mexico City’s latitude.)

While all this happens, organized crime is getting more predatory. WOLA reported this month that migrants awaiting CBP One appointments in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas face high, and increasing, probabilities of being kidnapped for ransom, assaulted, raped, and tortured by violent criminal groups.


The drop in migration is temporary

Most of the northbound migrants whom Mexican forces have stopped remain “bottled up” or stranded inside Mexico. This is obviously unsustainable: the dam that Mexico has built up cannot hold for very long and while some are opting to settle in Mexico, many more continue to have the U.S. as their destination.

More people continue to enter Mexico from the south, judging from the Panamanian and Honduran governments’ data about migrants transiting their countries. As of March 31, Panama had registered 109,069 people transiting the treacherous Darién Gap, a 14 percent increase over the first three months of 2023. Honduras registered 133,518 migrants passing through its territory during the first three months of 2024, 120 percent more than the same period in 2023.

The most prominent nationality is citizens of Venezuela, who make up 64 percent of people registered in Panama and 47 percent of those registered in Honduras. All three countries—Mexico (even without March data), Honduras, and Panama—have encountered far more Venezuelan migrants so far this year than the United States has. This tells us that Venezuelans—like many other nationalities—are currently bottlenecked in Mexico.


Mexico, a middle-income country with important security and governance challenges and a presidential election in June, can’t contain this many unrooted people “in limbo” for a long period. At some point, Mexico’s containment may falter, and large numbers of people will resume arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.


Texas’s policies don’t seem to explain it

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), a vocal critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, has been claiming credit for the 2024 drop in migration. Abbott argues that his expenditure of about $10 billion in state funds on tough border security measures has deterred migrants, and in particular deterred them from coming to the Texas part of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The data so far don’t quite back that up.

Gov. Abbott launched “Operation Lone Star” in March 2021, initiating what would become National Guard and police deployments, thousands of “trespassing” arrests of migrants, wall-building, busing of migrants to Democratic-governed cities, and other measures. One of Abbott’s greatest escalations took place in June-July 2023, when he ordered a “wall” of buoys built in the Rio Grande and installed dozens of miles of concertina wire on the riverbank.

The deterrent effect of all of this was null. Migrant encounters in Texas hit their highest point of the Biden administration in September 2023 and almost matched it again in December 2023.

Data table


Migration has fallen in Texas since January, but the same happened in the first months of 2023, with almost identical numbers of migrant encounters a year ago. In March 2024, Texas made up 42 percent of all border migrant encounters. That’s the lowest level of the Biden administration—but it is not a big drop from the 46 percent of encounters that was Texas’s share a year earlier, in March 2023.

Gov. Abbott’s escalations of “Operation Lone Star” have had little to no correlative effect on migration flows to Texas. It is possible, however, that Texas’s harsh new state immigration law, SB4, currently blocked in court, could cool migration in Texas for a few months, as some migrants and smugglers avoid that state as they “wait and see” how the law will be implemented.


Denying asylum access won’t work

Cracking down on migration, as Mexico and Texas are attempting, only reduces migration in the short term. If the numbers start rising again, U.S. policymakers may look for new ways to crack down. Those won’t work beyond the short term either.

The likely next step is already looming. Legislation that failed to pass the Senate in February, and executive action that the Biden White House is considering, would suspend asylum processing when daily migrant encounters reach a certain threshold. “When the border has over 5,000 people a day trying to cross the border because you can’t manage it, slow it up,” President Biden said to Univisión in April.

Even if it survives legal challenges, any new federal efforts to “shut down asylum” at the border would have only a short-term effect on migration flows. People who arrive on U.S. soil will still have a right to due process, adjudication capacity remains woefully inadequate, many migrants now come from very distant countries that make deportation too costly to carry out massively, some governments refuse to receive deportation flights, and Mexico simply cannot—and will not—take back that many non-Mexican returnees.

During the first six months of fiscal 2024, 41 percent of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border—549,270 people—came from countries farther away than Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE currently runs about 30 removal flights to such countries each month. Even if the United States lost touch with its basic values and severely curtailed asylum access, there wouldn’t be enough ICE planes to expel the vast majority of migrants, or a budget to pay for them.

The same would be true if Donald Trump were president again. “Shutting down asylum” is not a long-term plan.


The U.S. government can solve this

The U.S. commitment to the right to seek asylum dates back to the decades after World War II. Most Americans would never want to go back to a past where we turned people away to likely deaths, without even offering them a hearing. An important number of today’s asylum seekers— at least a quarter, counting cases that get closed—win asylum or other protection in the United States, even with limitations in access to legal counsel and vast geographic differences in asylum approval rates. To “shut down” asylum would be to send hundreds of thousands of people per year back to very likely harm.

The situation at the border is not a “crisis,” it is an administrative problem. It requires the U.S. government to reform its border and migration apparatus to conform with reality.

Adjusting to the new reality—adjudicating protection claims fairly but more efficiently—requires:

  • More processing capacity at the border, including more CBP One appointments and opportunities for urgent “walk-ups” at ports of entry. CBP and Border Patrol need more facilities to bring people to be processed and to begin asylum claims, staffed by people who don’t need law enforcement training.
  • More case management to ensure that asylum applicants remain in the system and have access to services.
  • More asylum officers and immigration judges. It is a travesty that, a decade after the number of asylum seekers started to increase at the border, the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review has only 725 judges to hear nearly 3 million cases—and that this workforce declined slightly since September 2023.

The U.S. government urgently needs to invest in these priorities. It makes no sense to expect lulls in migration, like we’re seeing right now, to be permanent. Migration has bounced back from numerous crackdowns over the past 10 years. The early 2024 decline is not a “new normal,” because nothing has been fixed.