Newly released federal data reported that border agents arrested about half of the immigrants at the US-Mexico border in fiscal year 2020 as they did the previous year. The sharp drop in the number of migrants arrested comes on the heels of de facto border closures and new restrictions in the way asylum cases are handled in response to the law.
Here’s a closer look at the changing dynamics on the southwest border, based on new figures from the US Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency tasked with patrolling the border.
After a big spike in fiscal year 2019, concerns at the U.S.-Mexico border were cut by nearly half in fiscal year 2020 due to border closures. There were 400,651 concerns in fiscal year 2020 (October 2019 – September 2020), down 53% from the previous fiscal year, when concerns rose to their highest level in 12 years. The fiscal year 2020 total was generally on par with other recent years and much less than the 1,643,679 recorded in the peak year of 2000. Border concerns regularly exceeded 1 million per fiscal year during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
The drop in fears comes as the movement of migrants in the Americas and around the world has slowed within a year, as governments shut their borders in whole or in part to stem its spread.
In March, Mexico imposed restrictions on non-essential travel across its border with the United States, while the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras imposed movement restrictions. Most of the immigrants arrested at the US-Mexico border in recent years have come from Mexico and Central America.
In a turnaround, the number of Mexicans outnumbered non-Mexicans among those arrested at the border in fiscal year 2020. Mexican citizens made up 63% of the total number of detainees, the first year in the last five years in which the number of citizens of other countries outnumbered. The change marks a return to the pattern observed during the first decade of the twenty-first century. For example, in 2000 (the first year for which data are available), Mexicans accounted for 98% of the fears while non-Mexicans accounted for only 2%.
Border agents arrested a total of 253,118 Mexicans in fiscal 2020, up from 166,458 the previous year and the highest total in seven years. The increase comes despite a sharp drop in migrant fears from Central America in fiscal year 2020. The United States arrested 47,243 immigrants from Guatemala, down from 264,168 the previous year.
Unmarried adults accounted for the majority of concerns in Fiscal Year 2020, another big shift from last year. There were 317,864 arrests of unmarried adults, representing 79% of the total and the largest number of adults arrested in six years. Fears of “family units” – defined as the number of individuals traveling in a family – accounted for 13% of the total, and decreased from 473,682 in fiscal 2019 to 52,230 last year. Meanwhile, the concerns of unaccompanied children 17 and younger have also decreased from their peak in fiscal year 2019, from 76,020 to 30,557.
The change in the file of people arrested at the border follows changes in the way the US government deals with border concerns during the month of March, citing the pandemic, the Trump administration issued an order allowing border guard personnel to expel immigrants they consider to be health risks expeditiously. Their country of origin or last country of transit (in this case, Mexico). This includes asylum seekers and unaccompanied children. Since April, the first full month after the order, these expulsions have accounted for 91% of all border patrol concerns on the southwestern border.
Concerns receded in nearly every border sector in the fiscal year 2020, especially in the Rio Grande sector. The Rio Grande region saw a 73% decrease in immigrant concerns in fiscal year 2020 compared to fiscal 2019, from 339,135 to 90,206. This was by far the largest numeric drop of any of the nine SWB sectors. The El Paso sector witnessed a decline of 70%, from 182,143 apprehensions cases to 54,396. Despite these declines, the Rio Grande and El Paso sectors still ranked 1st and 3rd, respectively, in overall concerns.
Seasonal migration patterns have changed in recent years. Since 2000, border concerns peaked in the spring – often in March – before declining during the hot summer months, when migratory journeys become more dangerous. In fiscal year 2020, September was the peak month, with 54,771 apprehensions cases.
After the outbreak emerged, concerns decreased from 30,389 in March to 16,182 in April. But it started to increase in May before peaking in the last month of the fiscal year.