Facts About the Current Situation at the Border

March 23, 2021

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2021 – The nation has turned its attention to the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, including the rise in immigrant children in U.S. government custody. Much of the conversation has focused on a supposed surge in arrivals under the Biden administration, but the current increase began well before President Biden took office. Here are five facts about the border.

1. Border encounters have been rising for months. The current rise began in April 2020, when President Trump instituted the practice of expelling all individuals encountered at the border under public health authority allegedly provided by Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Under Title 42, any single adult or family crossing the border from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador were immediately turned around and sent back to Mexico. Unaccompanied children and most individuals from other countries were taken into custody, held for days or weeks, and then deported by plane back to their home country.

After implementing Title 42, the number of single adults crossing the border began rising rapidly, from a low of 14,754 in April to 62,041 in December. Many encounters are the same people trying to cross multiple times, as primarily Mexican men are turned back within hours, letting them try again quickly.

While the number of unaccompanied children and families encountered at the border also rose over that same period, it rose in much smaller numbers. Even after President Biden took office, in February 2021 a full 71% of all people encountered at the border were single adults, not families or children. The number of families apprehended at the border is still half that of February 2019.

2. The southern border remains closed to nearly all people. Despite claims of “open borders,” the Biden administration continues to rapidly expel most people encountered at the border. Last month, 72% of all people encountered at the border were sent back to Mexico or expelled to their home countries. And while unaccompanied children and some families at the border have been allowed to come into the country and challenge their deportation in immigration court, they represent a fraction of overall entrants.

3. We’ve been here before. Both the Obama and Trump administrations used harmful deterrence-based policies to try to prevent people from coming to the United States. Obama detained families and Trump separated families and sent them into dangerous conditions in Mexico under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.

Neither policy worked in the long-term. They temporarily suppressed arrivals, but the push factors in home countries and drivers of migration remain. Within a few years of each punitive policy’s implementation, there was another increase in people coming to the border. What is happening now under Biden is neither unique nor unprecedented.

There have been spikes in arrivals at the border in 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019, and now 2021. Even family separation in 2018 did not have a significant effect on border encounters, and the numbers of families arriving at the border in 2019 had already begun to reduce before the MPP program went into full effect across the border. A new spike was inevitable. The only question was when.

4. So far, Biden has changed few practices at the border. Unaccompanied children have not been expelled under Title 42 since November 2020, when a federal judge ruled that doing so is a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Although Biden chose not to resume expelling unaccompanied children after that court order was lifted, that change in policy did not result in a change in practice.

Similarly, President Biden’s decision to end the MPP program had little practical effect on border processing, as just 1.2% of individuals encountered at the border since the pandemic began were subject to MPP. In addition, the “Asylum Cooperative Agreement” with Guatemala that Biden terminated had been fully suspended since March 2020. Biden’s action did not change the status quo.

Beginning in February, most families have not been expelled at the border. The Biden administration has repeatedly insisted that this is because the Mexican government in the state of Tamaulipas has refused to accept the expulsions of certain families with especially young children. Reports confirm that the Biden administration has attempted to adapt to this change by flying some families to El Paso and San Diego to expel them at a different location on the border. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there has been no formal U.S. policy change on accepting families, and President Biden cannot force the Mexican government to accept expulsions.

5. This is primarily a humanitarian challenge. The largest challenge faced by the Biden administration is how to respond to a record number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border, which by law cannot be expelled back to Mexico. Logistical challenges in getting these children into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement have led to thousands of children backed up in inadequate conditions in Border Patrol facilities.

Biden has taken several steps to increase the capacity of ORR to house children and find them a sponsor in the shortest time possible. The solution cannot be to turn away these children and send them back to harm in their home countries. It is legal to seek asylum. Over the last 50 years, we have accepted millions of refugees, who have enriched the nation immeasurably. We can do so again.

Our experts are available for comment on the current situation at the border.


For more information, contact:
Melissa Cruz, American Immigration Council, [email protected]

Media Contact

Elyssa Pachico
[email protected]

Most Read

  • Publications
  • Blog Posts
  • Past:
  • Trending