Data: How the latest spike in migrants at U.S.-Mexico border compares to past years

Sharp increase mirrors 2019 numbers; eclipsed by surges in 2000s

The numbers are clear: federal immigration and border agents are dealing with a massive influx of migrants crossing into the United States through the country’s southwest land border. A majority are in Texas.

According to the latest data available from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol agents logged 100,441 apprehensions in February along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s a 28% increase from January, when 78,442 were reported.

Most people coming into the country present themselves to border agents once they cross and are detained and processed. Many of the men, women and children are refugees fleeing poverty, corruption and economic crises in their home countries including Central America and Mexico.

The spike in migrants entering federal custody at the border has led to an outcry from Republican leaders like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who have blamed President Joe Biden’s border policies for the growing numbers.

But the agency’s statistics show that the latest influx appears to be less connected to the new President Joe Biden administration and more of a continuation of a massive jump in border crossings that started at the beginning of 2019 and peaked in May of that year, during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

The four-month stretch in 2019 — and, now, Feb. 2021 — are the only months in the last decade to eclipse 100,000 in monthly encounters, records show.

That quick rise in immigration in 2019 was stemmed by summer heat and the pandemic, but the data suggests that as the rest of the world is opening up, so are the paths to the Texas-Mexico border.

And they have been for months. The numbers show a steady increase in migration months before Biden was elected, beginning in April 2020.

(The below chart shows apprehensions by Fiscal Year, which runs from Oct. 1 - Sept. 30). Having issues? Click here.

An analysis by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center found that migrations regularly increase between January and May, when months are warmer. The numbers decrease in summer months when conditions become dangerously hot.

Experts say 2021 numbers will likely be higher due to a backlog of migrants who would have come if not for the coronavirus pandemic halting travel and some court proceedings in 2020.

Even still, the 2019 and 2021 numbers have been eclipsed in 2007 and before that. For example, in 2000, CBP reported at least 100,000 apprehensions for eight consecutive months, peaking in February with 211,328 apprehensions.

In other words, the influx in migrants is nothing new: it’s a cyclical trend that has fluctuated over the last two decades and is often less tied to the president’s policies and fueled more by seasonal trends and the increasingly difficult and dangerous realities that people are trying to escape.

Who is crossing in 2021?

The vast majority of those apprehended in 2021 are single adults, CBP data showed.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that authorities have swiftly expelled most of them, except for those with “acute vulnerabilities.”

“The expulsion of single adults does not pose an operational challenge for the Border Patrol because of the speed and minimal processing burden of their expulsion,” Mayorkas wrote.

The main challenge authorities are facing is the housing of unaccompanied minors who have shown up at the United States border.

Out of the 396,598 apprehensions logged in fiscal year 2021, 29,729 were unaccompanied minors, children 17 and younger.

“They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration’s practice of expelling them,” Mayorkas wrote.

This policy change, coupled with the latest spike, has led to crowding issues, making it difficult for Health and Human Services to quickly take in more children due to capacity restrictions amid the pandemic, resulting in overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities.

That’s also led to military bases like JBSA-Lackland in San Antonio now being prepared to house some of the children.

“As difficult as the border situation is now, we are addressing it,” Mayorkas wrote. “We have acted and we have made progress. We have no illusions about how hard it is, and we know it will take time.”

Read more on our Border page or Data page:


About the Authors:

Fares Sabawi has been a journalist in San Antonio for four years. He has covered several topics, but specializes in crime, courts, open records and data visualization.

Kolten Parker is digital executive producer at KSAT. Previously, he worked at the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer.