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Did Trump Just Prove There's a Crisis on the Border?

The number of people arrested crossing the southern border skyrocketed last month, according to new statistics. But what's happening is more complicated than the numbers show.
Migrants seeking asylum in the United States are seen in the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 5th, 2019.

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States are seen in the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 5th, 2019.

Over the last few months, in his push for a proposed border wall, President Donald Trump has doubled down on alarmist rhetoric warning of what he calls a crisis on the southern border. A key statistic from a report released by Customs and Border Protection on Tuesday seemed to back up the president's claim: The number of people caught crossing the southern border in February reached its highest level in over a decade.

"The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point," Kevin McAleenan, CBP's commissioner, told reporters. "This is clearly both a border security and a humanitarian crisis."

Over 76,000 people crossed the United States–Mexico border without authorization in February, according the newly released government data. The last time the number of people who crossed in the month of February reached comparable levels was over a decade ago, in 2008, when Border Patrol apprehended 73,483 people. According to Border Patrol, the number of monthly arrests has increased 97 percent since last year.

So, do these new statistics prove that the country is dealing with a historic immigration crisis? Answering this question is more complicated than just comparing data from the last 10 years.

Unauthorized Crossings Are Actually at Historic Lows

Even though illegal border crossings have increased in recent months, the number of people crossing the southern border has experienced a massive decline in the past two decades, and illegal immigration across the border has plummeted to lows not seen since the early 1970s. That means that, when we compare data from recent years, it can look like illegal immigration is spiking, even though numbers remain at historic lows.

For instance, at 76,000, the number of people caught crossing in February of 2019 was more than double the number of people caught crossing in February of 2018. But that 76,000 is still dwarfed by the number from the same time period less than two decades ago: In February of 2000, Border Patrol caught 211,328 people crossing the southern border. Over the course of 2000, more than 1.64 million people were caught crossing the southern border. In the 2018 fiscal year, Border Patrol arrested only 396,579 people.

Border Patrol's Numbers Only Cover Arrests, Not All Illegal Crossings

These apprehension numbers only refer to the number of people Border Patrol caught, not the total number of people who crossed the border illegally (though experts say the number of arrests is a decent stand-in for overall migration patterns). "Apprehensions" refers to both people caught crossing between points of entry, and people who tried to cross at an official entry point, but without the proper documents.

In recent years, many people apprehended crossing the border have also been asylum seekers. (In fiscal year 2018, 31 percent of people apprehended by Border Patrol were referred to "credible fear" interviews, the first step of the asylum process.) To legally request asylum, a person must be physically present on U.S. soil.

One Number Is Rising Dramatically: Family Crossings

One aspect of illegal immigration has reached levels unprecedented in recent history: the number of families caught crossing the border. About one million more people crossed the border illegally in 2000 compared to the number of people who crossed the border illegally in 2017 or 2018. But the vast majority of people crossing in 2000 were single men, coming to the U.S. to search for work. In recent months, the majority of people caught crossing the border have been traveling in family units, with children.

Because Border Patrol facilities and policies are typically constructed to deal with single men, the agency has indeed been pushed to a breaking point as it attempts to responsibly and safely contend with the increased number of families with young children, who require special attention.

Though the trend of mostly single men crossing the border continued through the George W. Bush era and early Barack Obama years, Border Patrol agents began to notice an increase in the number of families and children they caught trying to cross the border in the early 2010s. The government only began collecting data about the number of people who apprehended in family units in 2012, and, since that time, the number of people crossing the border with children has increased dramatically.

Today, CBP reports that families and unaccompanied children make up 60 percent of the people Border Patrol catches crossing the southern border. In February, agents apprehended 36,000 families, the highest number for a single month since data collection began.

CBP's Detention System Is Not Designed for Families

CBP detention facilities, often located in remote areas, are notoriously austere, and were designed to detain single men, not families. Migrants call some of the facilities "hieleras" or ice boxes, because of how cold the concrete cells can become, with CBP officers offering migrants mylar blankets for warmth. Other facilities are called "perreras," or dog kennels, because of how many people are forced to share quarters. Federal law mandates that children only be kept in these facilities, which are designed for short-term holding, for 72 hours, but an internal government report from last year revealed that that regulation was often broken.

In December, two children died while in CBP custody, drawing attention to how the agency has, for years, struggled to provide proper health care to children and other people with special conditions.

"The vast increases in families and children coming across our border, in larger groups and in more remote areas, presents a unique challenge to our operations and facilities," McAleenan said in a statement on Tuesday. He also announced that CBP had identified additional funding to provide "humanitarian resources to the field," including a new protocol for ensuring the health and safety of migrant children.