Home / Articles / Encounters with migrants along the US-Mexico border reach a monthly high in March

Since the pandemic began, single adults account for most of the apprehensions, expulsions, and denials of entry along the southern border.

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Federal officials apprehended, expelled, or deemed 172,300 people inadmissible at the southern border in March, the highest number of encounters since at least October 2012.

An increase in migrants trying to cross into the US from the southern border is drawing political attention to immigration issues. The March 2021 figures are 10 times higher than the 17,100 encounters recorded in April 2020. The rise comes after steep declines in border activity during the coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2006, 160,700 people were apprehended at the border. That figure excludes other types of encounters such as expulsions due to COVID-19 concerns. The same individual could be involved in separate encounters, counting each time.

What is an encounter and who does it involve?

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters include apprehensions by Border Patrol, or when the Office of Field Operations refuses admission to someone at a recognized port of entry or expulsion due to public health reasons. Both President Biden and President Trump denied entry to migrants at the border due to COVID-19 concerns.

While these actions do occur on the Canadian border, most recorded incidents are on the Mexico border.

Prior to the pandemic, most of the encounters on the border involved families. In 2019, 52% of the encounters on the southern border involved migrants traveling in family units, including their children. In 2020, only 8% of the encounters were in these categories. In the first three months of 2021, families made up 22% of the incidents.

CBP attributes the recent rise "due to reasons which include violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty" in four countries: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Historically, people from these countries account for most encounters. In June 2020, Mexican citizens comprised 83% of all encounters, while the three Central American countries made up 11%. In March 2021, Mexicans were 36% of the encounters and the three other countries accounted for another 49%.

Encounters involving Mexican citizens and three Central American countries increased since the pandemic.

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How are children handled at the border?

Since October 2017, unaccompanied minors made up between 4% to 12% of southern border encounters every month. In May 2019, 11,900 encounters or 8% were related to unaccompanied children.

As of April 2021, federal authorities continued to expel unauthorized people based on COVID-19 concerns. However, the Biden administration’s policy takes unaccompanied minors into custody rather than expel them.

These children are placed under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. After being placed in a shelter, the children are placed with sponsors, usually family members, while awaiting an immigration hearing. During fiscal year 2020, children remained in care for an average of 102 days. With an increase in encounters involving unaccompanied minors, that average fell to 42 days in February 2021.

The number of children in federal care after being apprehended by immigration officials is increasing after a decline in 2020.

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What is the status of the border wall?

The Trump administration issued Executive Order 13767 in January 2017. Called “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” the order outlined a White House policy to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” On February 15, 2019, Trump declared a national emergency on the border. On January 20, 2021, President Biden revoked that emergency declaration and later called for a pause of border construction.

Including congressional appropriations, the border wall has received $11.2 billion in direct funding since 2017. The Trump administration sidestepped Congress in 2019 to speed up construction on the wall, diverting over $5 billion in funding through CBP, almost $10 billion in Defense Department funding, and more than $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund.

On October 19, 2020, CBP reported that 371 miles of border wall have been completed since Trump took office, though only five miles are new. The remaining miles are replacements or secondary barriers to existing walls.

After reaching a high of 284 miles of primary fencing installed in 2008, new construction has fallen: 111 miles in 2009; six miles in 2010; 10 miles in 2011; four in 2012; and less than one mile from 2013 through 2018 — including no new primary barrier construction between 2016 and 2018, according to a January 2020 report by the Congressional Research Service.

How many Border Patrol agents are there?

Border Patrol employment has been relatively steady since the Obama administration, hovering around 20,000 yearly since 2009. In 2011, CBP staffing reached an all-time high of 21,444 agents. In 2019, the number of agents was 19,648.

Most Border Patrol agents are stationed along the US-Mexico border.

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Most agents are stationed along the Southwest border. In 2019, 85% of all CBP agents patrolled areas in Arizona, California, and Texas. Ten percent of agents patrolled the Northern sector, which includes Detroit, Spokane, Wash., and Buffalo, New York. One percent of CBP agents worked in coastal borders, including Miami, New Orleans, and Puerto Rico.

U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Border Encounters
Border Patrol Agent Nationwide Staffing by Fiscal Year
DHS Border Barrier Funding
Last updated
Updated January 29, 2020