border patrol san diego
The seal of U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of buzz over a pair of ongoing border crises – an uptick in apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border and the treatment of migrant children in U.S. custody.

A good place to start if you want to understand what’s happening is with VOSD’s Andy Keatts and his conversation with Tom Wong, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UCSD, about why we shouldn’t call the increase in apprehension statistics a “surge.”

In February, Customs and Border Protection officials made roughly 100,000 apprehensions along the country’s southern border. That marked a 28 percent increase from January and was the highest number of apprehensions made since May 2019. Sounds scary, right? But those figures lack historical context.

Wong and his team of researchers analyzed apprehension data from Customs and Border Protection to determine whether the current uptick is actually a crisis.

They found three reasonable explanations – seasonal migration patterns, pent-up demand from 2020 and unreliable statistics.

Each year, the number of CBP apprehensions increases from January to May. Then it slows in the summer. That’s mostly explained by weather: people avoid making the journey north when the mountains are covered in snow or when the desert averages triple-digit temperatures.

This pattern is so predictable that Wong told Keatts to expect more increases in March, April and May stats this year. If you read headlines next month about another “surge” at the border, be skeptical of month-by-month comparisons.

It’s also worth noting that Customs and Border Protection apprehensions peaked in 2000 with 1.6 million and consistently hovered over 1 million since 1983. Between 2010 and 2017, apprehensions never surpassed half a million, so we’ve had a recent period of historically low apprehension numbers.

Wong’s second explanation is pent-up demand from 2020. Basically, people who couldn’t cross last year are crossing now.

In 2020, the Trump administration used a policy called Title 42 to give border officials authority to send migrants they apprehend along the border back to Mexico without due process.

The idea was to stop the spread of COVID-19. Title 42 did a good job of keeping people out of the United States in 2020, but a lot of those people simply stayed at the border and waited for a better time to cross.

Wong’s third explanation focuses on federal data.

When Customs and Border Protection says the agency made 100,000 apprehensions, that doesn’t mean 100,000 individual people were stopped at the border. Their statistics don’t take into account repeats.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many repeat apprehensions are in the stats. Wong has tried in vain to get the data.

But we know it’s a significant amount.

Wong’s data shows that about one-third of Title 42 expulsions are repeats. And reporting from Kate Morrissey of the San Diego Union-Tribune reveals that more than 70 percent of February’s expulsions were done under Title 42.

Morrissey’s reporting does a brilliant job of putting you in the migrant’s mindset and shows how frustrating the lack of clarity coming out of the Biden administration has been for asylum-seekers who have already been waiting in Mexico for more than a year.

Kids in Cages

According to Wong’s data, the rise in apprehensions among unaccompanied children cannot be explained by pent-up demand or seasonal migration flows.

And that brings us to the second next border crisis: kids in cages.

Public outrage over kids in cages started in 2014 when photos of children “surge facilities” were first published during the Obama administration. At the time, there was a then-unprecedented increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border – kind of like we are seeing now.

The influx of children presented a unique challenge, and the Obama administration responded with temporary surge facilities. It is important to note that the children in these facilities had crossed the border on their own.

President Donald Trump’s version of the “kids in cages” controversy was a little different, but also the same.

It was the same in that the Trump administration housed children in similar surge facilities that the Obama administration used. Here’s a photo from 2014 and here is one from 2018. The two facilities look identical.

But Trump’s controversy was mainly over his administration’s decision to actively separate children who had crossed with their parents as part of its “zero tolerance” policy. To this day, hundreds of those children have not been returned to their parents.

Obama and Trump both used very similar cases to use these facilities, but Trump actively separated children from parents, while Obama focused on kids who had come on their own.

It’s worth noting that, according to the Associated Press, Democratic lawmakers have previously criticized these temporary surge facilities because they are not subject to the same licensing requirements as facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Biden administration seems to be doing the same thing the Obama administration did.

San Diego-based Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat was one of the first journalists in the country to tour these facilities last week. He found more than 4,000 people crammed into a space intended for 250, where the youngest children slept in a large playpen with mats on the floor.

Quick Hits

  • The San Diego Convention Center is now being used to house migrant children. The Union-Tribune’s Rob Nicolewski and Kate Morrissey report that the temporary shelter is limited to girls between 13 and 17, with a capacity of 1,450. The girls will stay there until the government can find more permanent housing situations either with family or in foster care.
  • Haitian migrants continue to face discrimination in Tijuana. Max Rivlin-Nadler’s reporting shows how racism is a bi-national, bi-cultural and bi-partisan phenomenon. Black Haitian migrants face racism within Tijuana’s migrant camps and through the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
  • Jean Guerrero wrote an interesting story about two Tijuana-based MAGA supporters who have become right-wing media darlings. It’s worth pointing out because of San Diego’s special place in the conservative media landscape – Tucker Carlson has La Jolla roots and One America News is headquartered here.
  • Andrea Lopez-Villafana has a great article about how San Diego County does not specifically track Filipino, Middle Eastern or refugees in their statistics. Those communities are classified within larger demographic groups. Lopez-Villafana’s story explains how this lack of data impacts these communities’ ability to get resources that could help them combat the coronavirus.

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