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Unauthorized Immigration Attempts at the Southwest Border


Monday, December 30, 2019

By Subhayu Bandyopadhyay, Research Officer and Economist, and Asha Bharadwaj, Research Associate

A major immigration issue for the U.S. has been unauthorized immigration across the Southwest border. While we do not have an accurate count of unauthorized migration attempts, we can infer it by looking at the data on border apprehensions. The latter is likely to rise as more people attempt to cross the border.

Indeed, apprehensions at the U.S.–Mexico border have more than doubled between fiscal years 2018 and 2019, as seen in the figure below.

Bar Chart Showing Southwest Border Apprehensions by Type from 2013 - 2019

There were around 852,000 apprehensions in the 2019 fiscal year (October 2018-September 2019), fueled by a sharp rise in apprehensions in the “family unit” category.The U.S. Customs and Border Protection releases data on apprehensions by demographics: “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” “Family Unit” and “Single Adults.” The first category refers to children under the age of 18, and the last one refers to adults. A family unit represents the number of people (a child under 18 years old, parent or legal guardian) apprehended with a family member. In the 2019 fiscal year, there were more than 473,000 family unit apprehensions, more than half of total apprehensions that year and more than four times the family unit apprehensions for the 2018 fiscal year. This represents a clear break in trend from previous years, when apprehensions of unauthorized single adults far outnumbered other demographics.

In addition, the latest data from the 2019 fiscal year show that apprehensions from Guatemala (264,000) and Honduras (254,000) far outnumbered apprehensions from Mexico (166,000). The spike in family immigration attempts is consistent with narratives about families fleeing some of the more unsafe and violent nations to seek security in the U.S.

Apprehensions by Source Nation and Type

The figure below presents apprehensions from the top four source nations in the 2019 fiscal year.

Bar chart showing southwest border apprehensions by country and type for 2019

Mexico looks remarkably different, with 90% of apprehensions from this nation being single adults. For the other three nations, family unit was the top category, followed by single adults. This suggests that the surge in family-based unauthorized immigration attempts is not from Mexico, which has traditionally been the largest source nation for unauthorized immigration.

Although we cannot be sure without a deeper investigation, it is possible that the differences in the patterns between Mexico and the other three source nations are driven by the differences in their respective “push” and “pull” factors of immigration. Perhaps the push of violence or general insecurity in the three Central American nations is the main driver of the family immigration attempts, while economic factors may be more relevant for Mexico.

Notes and References

1 The U.S. Customs and Border Protection releases data on apprehensions by demographics: “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” “Family Unit” and “Single Adults.” The first category refers to children under the age of 18, and the last one refers to adults. A family unit represents the number of people (a child under 18 years old, parent or legal guardian) apprehended with a family member.

Additional Resources

Posted In Labor  |  Tagged subhayu bandyopadhyayasha bharadwajimmigrationmexicohondurasguatemalael salvador
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