The crisis at the southwest border is getting worse, not better, according to new monthly data released this week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Total migrant apprehensions topped 180,000 in May — a 20 -year high, putting the United States on track to exceed 1.5 million border apprehensions by the end of the fiscal year in September.
By any measure, we’re seeing an historic surge of illegal immigration at the border. Not since April 2000 have federal authorities detained that many people in a single month. Yet immigration advocates and some in the corporate press emphasized instead that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and families declined in May compared to April — 23 percent for minors and 31 percent for families — taking it as an indication the Biden administration is indeed getting the border under control, as the president has repeatedly claimed.
But the most important bit of data released by CBP this week isn’t about minors or families, but about single adults. The vast majority of border arrests so far this year have been adults traveling alone — more than 121,000 in May, and nearly 660,000 so far this year. That’s almost twice the total number of encounters in each of the last two years, and well over double the number for 2018.
Why is that important? Because adults traveling without families or children are unlike the migrants you most often see featured in corporate media. They are not the ones fording the Rio Grande in broad daylight or turning themselves in to the nearest Border Patrol agent when they reach the north bank. They are not the ones claiming asylum and lining up to be processed and released by CBP.
In May, CBP encountered more than 180,000 persons attempting entry along the SW border. This total represents a 1% increase over April.
— CBP (@CBP) June 9, 2021
They are the ones trying to evade law enforcement. In practice, that means more high-speed car chases. It means small groups of men hiking across South Texas ranchlands, often in camouflage. It means more break-ins and burglaries, assaults on Border Patrol agents, stash houses and smugglers and organized crime. It means a fair number of these men — and they are mostly men — are trying to escape detection because they have criminal records.
I should note that the 121,000 figure doesn’t represent individuals, but individual encounters on the border. CBP says 38 percent of those encounters were with individuals who had previously tried to cross sometime in the past year. This of course happens every year, but usually the share of recidivist border crossers is closer to 15 percent. What this higher rate tells us is that quickly expelling migrants under Title 42, the pandemic-related authority Trump invoked and Biden continued, isn’t as good of a deterrent as actual deportation, which carries with it a criminal conviction and the prospect of prison time for re-offenders.
What the CBP numbers can’t tell us is how many of these adults are successful, how many got away. Border Patrol estimates that nearly 1,000 people a day are sneaking into the country without being identified or taken into custody — the highest in recent memory, according to federal officials.
Determining the number of so-called “got aways” isn’t an exact science, but an estimate based on migrants who are observed entering the country but law enforcement is unable to arrest. The real figure is probably higher.
Federal authorities know they’re dealing with a record number of “got aways” because they can often detect illegal border crossers but are unable to reach them because they’re busy dealing with families and children who have turned themselves in. Indeed, cartel-associated smuggling networks are known to coordinate groups of families and minors to tie up law enforcement so that groups of adults can cross undetected in a different location.
All migrants pay to cross the Rio Grande, but adults who want to avoid detection pay significantly more, in part because the smugglers must get them over the border and past inland Border Patrol checkpoints, using U.S.-based drivers and stash houses along the way.
Some of these adult migrants offset the cost of their journey by smuggling drugs on behalf of the cartels that control the border. Indeed, the latest CBP data show a steady increase in the volume of illicit narcotics being brought into the country.
Drug seizures so far this fiscal year are 56 greater than all of fiscal 2020, with an 18 percent increase from April to May. Seizures of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s driving a record number of deadly overdoses nationwide, have increased markedly, from 2,801 pounds in 2019, to 4,776 last year, to 7,450 so far this year.
What the data suggest, in other words, isn’t just that near-record numbers of illegal immigrants are entering the country, but also that the border is getting more dangerous.