With news of an increase in the number of migrants arriving at the border, I thought it useful to share historical patterns of apprehensions by Border Patrol. The chart below uses data reported by Customs and Border Protection dating back to the Border Patrol’s founding.
The agency’s data indicate that the United States has not seen a historically unprecedented situation at the border in many years, at least not if measured by the number of people coming into the Border Patrol’s custody. On the contrary, as of the last full fiscal year–2020, which ended on September 31, 2020–the Border Patrol was apprehending relatively few people. That was to be expected during the pandemic, of course. Even before then, however, from 2012 to 2015, the Border Patrol wasn’t apprehending all that many people by historical standards. From 1973 to 2009, the agency’s apprehension count never dropped below half a million people. Since then, it has only gone above that once, in 2019.
There’s an important caveat about 2020 statistics. The data that CBP reports includes people who were apprehended by the Border Patrol as well as those who were quickly expelled from the United States under emergency public health authority granted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (called Title 42 powers). The latter tend to be in Border Patrol custody for a very limited amount of time, often just a few hours. Excluding Title 42 expulsions, the number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol in fiscal year 2020 was actually 205,435.
Disaggregating the data, it’s possible to take a closer look at the types of migrants arriving. CBP has released data about unaccompanied minors, family units, and single adults apprehended from 2017 to 2020. These statistics reveal that a comparison to 2020 is misleading. Before the pandemic, unaccompanied minors and family units were coming in greater numbers than they did during the 2020 fiscal year (October 1, 2019 to September 31, 2020). In FY 2019, the last full year before the pandemic struck, there were more people who came as part of family units (473,682) than single adults (301,806) or unaccompanied children (76,020).
Annual data like what I’ve graphed are different than the monthly data making waves among legislators and news reports. I prefer annual data because they avoid some of the knee-jerk reaction that has been aired repeatedly over the last few weeks. The major drawback of annual data, however, is that it is slow to come. During the current 2021 fiscal year, CBP says that the Border Patrol has apprehended 382,617 people. The current fiscal year won’t end until September 31, 2021 and CBP doesn’t usually update its statistics until a few months later.