migrant tijuana
A Central American migrant peaks through a fence at the Unidad Deportiva Benito Juárez sports venue, which is housing dozens of migrants. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Immigration has been at the center of many of the year’s biggest stories, scandals and policy debates. Seemingly every day for the past year, there’s been a new policy, a new lawsuit, a new story about an asylum-seeker waiting at San Diego’s doorstep or a family desperate to stave off the impending deportation of a loved one.

Numbers help us understand the impacts of some of the policies, like the thousands of children separated from their parents in May and June or the historically low numbers of refugees arriving to San Diego. They also help us understand why the administration is implementing certain policies.

Here are five numbers that highlight some of the major events and themes in immigration policy in 2018.


In early April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, meaning the federal government will try to criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.

In the following months, the prosecutions resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents, while the government decided to levy criminal charges against the parents. The outrage from reports of children being ripped from their parents’ arms at the border – this audio released by ProPublica helped drive home the reality of what was happening – eventually even made President Donald Trump walk back the policy.

By that time, thousands of families had already been divided. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in February, alleging that an asylum-seeking woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November 2017, had been unjustly and unnecessarily separated from her then 6-year-old daughter. It was through that legal challenge that thousands of children – 2,654 to be precise – were identified as having been separated from a parent.

As of October, 9 percent of the children identified in the court case remained separated from their parents for various reasons, according to the ACLU. Some of the children made the decision to remain separated from parents who’d been deported and pursue an asylum claim in the United States. There are still some children who haven’t been reunited with their families because the government has identified a reason, like a parent’s alleged criminal record, as to why they should remain separated.

Numbers aren’t perfect, though. Amnesty International estimates that roughly 8,000 family units were separated in 2017 and 2018 – a much larger number than what was identified in the ACLU case – and we’re still seeing reports of families being separated for reasons like a parent’s alleged gang ties or criminal records.


While Central American migrants traveling in numbers or “caravans” through Mexico isn’t new, this year their numbers swelled and their existence drew far more attention than ever.

The roughly 1,500-person caravan that embarked from southern Mexico in the spring spurred the government’s zero-tolerance policy and the wrath of Trump.

In October, an even larger caravan of roughly 6,000 people made its way through Mexico. In the run-up to the November election, the caravan’s existence became a political football.

The numbers are constantly in flux, but 6,151 represents the number of people staying in Tijuana’s Benito Juarez sports complex, which served as the first makeshift shelter for the most recent caravan. There were 6,151 migrants in that shelter when severe rains came down in Tijuana in late November, flooding the outdoor refugee camp where many migrants are staying.

When members of the second caravan took part in a protest over Thanksgiving weekend in which hundreds of people ran around a Mexican blockade and toward the border crossing, U.S. officials took the rare step of closing the San Ysidro Port of Entry for five hours.


In fiscal year 2018, there were 844 refugee arrivals in San Diego – a historic low for a city that has long been one of the largest receivers of refugees in the country.

The low numbers are a direct result of historically low caps placed on refugees. In 2018, the cap was set at 45,000. In September, officials announced the 2019 caps will be even lower – 30,000. It will be the lowest refugee cap since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

While the caps are at historic lows, the arrivals are falling short of even those limits. The U.S. resettled 22,491 refugees – less than half allowed by the cap – in 2018.

The result has not only impacted refugee communities in the states and refugees hoping to come to the United States, but it’s also impacted local nonprofits in cities like San Diego that have long served refugees and now face budget cuts and layoffs because they have fewer arriving refugees to serve, KPBS reported in September.


There were 26,917 deportations carried out by the San Diego sector of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in fiscal year 2018.

That’s up from last year, when the agency removed 20,945 people from San Diego and Imperial counties from the country.

Nationwide, ICE carried out a 13 percent increase in deportations from the year before, for a total of 256,086. Of those, 57 percent had a criminal conviction.

While deportations under Trump are increasing, they’re still lower than the deportations carried out under the Obama administration, which reached 409,849 in 2012, according to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations reports.

The difference is in the amount of people without criminal convictions who are being arrested and deported by ICE. In the past year, ICE also carried out one of the largest local operations in recent history, which resulted in 115 arrests throughout San Diego and Imperial counties in March.

20.9 percent

That’s the approval rate in asylum decisions in fiscal year 2018, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review. The Trump administration has characterized asylum as a loophole in the U.S. immigration system that it believes is being abused so that Central Americans can come into the country.

But asylum is actually granted very infrequently, and it’s even more infrequent for Central Americans than for the population of asylum-seekers as a whole.

The administration points to the discrepancy between the low approval rates and the high rate of passage for what’s called a “credible fear interview” – the first step in the asylum process. After someone tells an immigration official that he or she fears returning to their country, an asylum officer interviews them and determines whether their fear is “credible.” More than 76 percent of the time, people pass these interviews, even though few are ultimately granted asylum.

The Trump administration alleges that this gap allows asylum seekers who may not have legitimate claims to enter the country while they wait for their hearing and then disappear into the country’s folds and not show up.

Decisions in asylum cases being made when the individual is not present at the hearing have grown over the past several years, according to data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review. But a study from the American Immigration Council released in August that analyzed 15 years’ worth of immigration hearing data from 2001 to 2016 found that families attended their asylum hearings 96 percent of the time.


While overall border crossings are far lower than they were decades ago, the number of families requesting asylum, particularly those from Central America, is growing.

Along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, Border Patrol apprehended 107,212 family units in fiscal year 2018, up from 75,622 in 2017. In fiscal year 2018, 53,901 families turned themselves in to a port of entry along the border, up from 29,375 last year.

San Diego saw the largest increase in families presenting themselves at ports of entry along the border. In fiscal year 2018, 15,772 presented themselves at a California port of entry, up 124 percent from last year. The local Border Patrol sector apprehended 4,408 families crossing illegally, a 50 percent increase from last year.

The increase in families has been identified as a crisis by the Trump administration. It’s tried several tactics to dissuade families from coming, from criminally prosecuting them and separating parents from children to an asylum ban for people caught crossing between ports of entry (that has been put on hold pending a legal challenge), to requiring asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.