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The Government's Numbers Show Increasing Border Arrests. Does That Mean the U.S. Is Facing an Illegal Immigration Crisis?

As with any data set, understanding Customs and Border Protection's new statistics means looking at more than just the numbers.
Border Patrol agents shine a light through the border wall as migrants search for a way to cross.

According to new data released by Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol arrested 98,977 people in April—more than in any other single month since 2007.

April has historically been one of the busier months for illegal crossings of the United States–Mexico border, and, in past years, the numbers have dipped during the summer months. But at the current rate of apprehensions, 2019 is on pace to see over a million arrests. This could mean that, after years of remaining at historic lows, border apprehensions are returning to high levels.

Is the U.S. facing a new, historic illegal immigration crisis? Trump officials claim that the answer is a resounding yes. "Our apprehension numbers are off the charts," Carla Provost, the chief of Border Patrol, said during Senate testimony on Wednesday. "It's like holding a bucket under a faucet. It doesn't matter how many buckets we have if we can't turn off the flow."

But understanding what's happening on the border requires more than just a look at the numbers. Here's some key context for this new data.

An Illegal Immigration Crisis—or a Family Migration Crisis?

The numbers from April show what we've long known: More and more people are arriving on the border as families. Family migration has been increasing for years, and, since last September, the majority of people apprehended crossing the border have been apprehended as families.

This is a significant shift and, perhaps more than any other factor, it explains the current crisis. The U.S. border and immigration system is designed to deal with single men coming from Mexico seeking work. In the late 1990s and early 2000s—when border apprehensions hit historic highs—the vast majority of illegal border crossers were single men. But as the Mexican economy improved and the U.S. hit a recession in the late 2000s, the number of Mexicans crossing the border each year decreased by over a million. Those numbers remain low today.

In fact, in April, the total number of single adults apprehended was only 8,897. That's still  more than most months in the past few years, but the number of single adult border crossers isn't rising that significantly—families account for almost all of the increase in apprehensions. (This chart, created by the Washington Office on Latin America, shows how single adult numbers have remained relatively steady as family numbers have shot up.)

Many People Crossing the Border Illegally Aren't Trying to Sneak Into the Country

In the past, the vast majority of people Border Patrol caught did not want to be caught—they were trying to cross into the U.S. and live and work as undocumented people. Today, however, thousands of people are crossing the border illegally with no intention of evading Border Patrol. This includes many, if not most, of the families caught: They cross in large groups and immediately surrender themselves to Border Patrol in order to claim asylum.

There is no statistic for the total number of people who cross, or try to cross, the border illegally. The closest thing we have is "border apprehensions"—the number of people Border Patrol catches. It's possible the total number of people crossing has not increased that significantly, but the large number of people intentionally surrounding to Border Patrol has boosted apprehension numbers.

Many People Crossing the Border Illegally First Tried to Cross Legally

Why are families intentionally surrendering to Border Patrol? The simplest answer is that these families, who mostly come from Central America, are not trying to become undocumented immigrants. They're trying to become refugees.

Applying for asylum (which means asking for refugee status) is a right afforded to all people under U.S. and international law—anyone arriving at an official port of entry should be able to ask for asylum. But around the same time the Trump administration announced its "zero-tolerance" policy (the justification behind family separation), it began a controversial new program called "metering." Under metering, CBP agents only admit a small number of asylum seekers into the port each day. This means that people at the border must wait months before getting the chance to ask for asylum at an official port.

Mexican border towns like Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Reynosa are some of the most dangerous cities in the world, and, for many, a months-long wait can be intolerable. In December, I embedded with a group of asylum seekers who had waited to ask for asylum at the official crossing, but, desperate and hungry, they decided to cross the border illegally instead. (Even when Border Patrol catches someone crossing illegally, they still have a legal right to ask for asylum.)

Last year, investigators with the Department of Homeland Security found that the metering policy had motivated many people who would've asked for asylum at a port of entry to cross illegally between ports. Other advocacy organizations have found similar evidence