In February 2019, 66,450 migrants crossed the US/Mexico border between official border crossings and were apprehended by US Border Patrol agents, committing the misdemeanor of illegal entry.
It’s a sharp increase from January and marks an 11-year high. But the number reflects an ongoing trend: record numbers of families coming to the US without papers.
The Trump administration reported that 76,103 people tried to enter the US without valid papers in February. That number combines people who came to official border crossings and migrants who were caught by Border Patrol after crossing illegally.
The total has alarmed conservatives; President Donald Trump has taken it as validation of his decision to declare a national emergency and appropriate more funding to build “a wall” along the border. (Construction of the wall would take months or years.)
But while current apprehension levels are higher than they’ve been in the last decade, they’re still way below pre-recession levels.
What is truly unprecedented is who the migrants are.
Almost two-thirds of Border Patrol apprehensions are of parents and their children. While we don’t have complete historical data, it seems likely that more families are coming to the US without papers than ever before. Additionally, a large share of migrants (both families and single adults) are expressing a desire to seek asylum.
Both groups are overwhelmingly coming from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The US immigration enforcement system was designed to swiftly detain and deport migrants who attempted to sneak into the US illegally. Asylum-seekers and families don’t fit that mold.
Border Patrol agents aren’t equipped to deal with large groups of families who travel through Mexico by bus and then turn themselves in at the border. This has arguably contributed to the deaths of multiple children in Border Patrol custody in recent months, and spurred Customs and Border Protection to expand medical care.
There are strict limits on how long immigrant children and families can be held in immigration custody; in practice, officials release most families pending an immigration hearing. Asylum seekers can’t be deported without a screening interview, and those who pass (by meeting a deliberately generous standard) are often eligible for release from detention while their cases are resolved.
Some of those migrants, either intentionally or accidentally, do not complete the asylum process or lose their cases, and live in the US as unauthorized immigrants. For many Trump officials, this is the heart of the crisis. Officials have spent the last year working on regulations and pushing Congress to expand family detention and reduce asylum protections.
Trump critics continue to insist that migration isn’t at crisis levels. To them, the more urgent issue is the administration’s treatment of families, children, and asylum seekers. They are urging the administration to allow more asylum seekers to present themselves at ports of entry legally. They are calling attention to the conditions in which migrants are being held in custody.
Asylum seekers cannot be barred from entry. The question is whether they should be treated as vulnerable migrants who the US is obligated to treat with kindness, or as deportable migrants until (if at all) they win legal status.