Unauthorized migrant crossings at the southwest border are at an all time high — more than 1.9 million in the last 11 months. That number, combined with the migrants who arrived at ports of entry, brought the total number of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border to more than 2.1 million.
The data comes from encounter data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, and represents a fourfold increase over the past two years.
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus blamed “failed communist regimes” in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua for driving migrants north to the U.S. in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile, migration from Mexican and Central American countries is down compared to 2021.
There’s discussion among immigration experts and officials about what the 2.1 million in encounters really means. Key questions include how policies such as Title 42, which allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants from the U.S. without bringing a formal immigration charge against them, affect migration behaviors.
A significant portion of the encounters includes repeat crossers, migrants who make multiple attempts to cross into the U.S., but exactly how much is debated. A recent study found the majority of migrants make multiple attempts — one migrant tried up to 81 times over two decades.
Deaths are on the rise among those who attempted to cross into the U.S., according to the Missing Migrants Project. Hundreds have died over the years in deserts, rivers or open waters, or more recently from falling from the 30-foot international barrier, in their attempts to evade detection from border authorities.
Many agree that the record-breaking numbers at the border represent a real challenge for immigration enforcement agencies.
“Probably the number one challenge is the incredible volume of people that we are seeing every single day and it isn't new, but the volume is significantly higher,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said.
The San Diego Sector, the U.S. Border Patrol enforcement area generally covering San Diego County and the west coast of California, is actually seeing much fewer unauthorized encounters compared to other sectors. Historical migration patterns that make California an important crossing area for Mexican migrants could be one reason why, one expert said.
But despite the lower apprehension numbers, Border Patrol agents working in San Diego are still feeling the pressure of a historical year in migrant crossings, in part because they are processing migrants apprehended in other sectors.
“We’re pushing very hard,” Heitke said.
What’s happening in San Diego?
Every sector across the southwest border of the U.S. has experienced an increase in migrant unauthorized encounters since 2020, but some more so than others. The Rio Grande Valley is leading the most unauthorized encounters across the border with 440,423 through August.
The San Diego Sector ranks fifth among the nine sectors along the southwest border with more 160,000 unauthorized encounters.
Apprehensions in the San Diego Sector are far from unprecedented. San Diego saw its highest number of apprehensions in the 80s, when unauthorized encounters peaked at more than 600,000 in one year — almost four times what they are now.
Mexican migrants — who are more likely to be expelled under Title 42 and make repeated crossing attempts — make up the largest share of migrants crossing into the U.S. through the San Diego Sector, according to Border Patrol data.
The international border in California has long been a significant migration route for Mexican single adults crossing into the U.S., according to Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.
Migrants from countries outside Mexico and Central America are more likely to cross through states such as Texas, which is why those areas are seeing more encounters, Ruiz Soto said.
The U.S. saw more than twice as many migrants this year from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua compared to the previous fiscal year, and most of those unauthorized encounters have happened along the border in Texas.
Despite lower unauthorized encounters, though, the San Diego Sector is still feeling the impacts of an unprecedented number of crossing attempts.
Heitke, the Border Patrol chief in San Diego, said his team receives hundreds of migrants from other parts of the border to process in addition to the ones they apprehend in their own sector.
“We are receiving four to seven buses a day, about 50 people per bus, from Yuma over here so that we can process them. We're also receiving a flight a day out of El Paso, Texas,” Heitke said.
Experts, Border Patrol urge lawmakers to act
The historic unauthorized encounter numbers at the southwest border of the U.S. is a reality that experts say demands attention and a response from lawmakers.
Immigration advocates and conservatives have lambasted the Biden administration for inaction on immigration issues. In his first year as president, Biden made nearly 300 executive orders related to immigration, many related to undoing policies enacted by former President Trump, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The administration also rolled back the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that forced asylum seekers to await their cases from Mexico, and attempted to roll back Title 42, though that policy remains in place.
Asked what his agency needs most in the face of record-breaking apprehension numbers, Heitke said, “it’s an easy one for me … comprehensive immigration reform.”
“People are going to come as long as there's turmoil in the world, people are looking for a better place,” Heitke said. “I don't think it's realistic to tell people just not to come,” Heitke said.
For decades, U.S. leaders have debated and failed to pass significant immigration reform. Yet immigration continues to drive stark divisions among elected leaders and communities across the U.S.
A recent example was the national coverage of 48 migrants who were unknowingly flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard at the direction of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been criticizing Biden for the situation at the border. The incident, widely panned by critics as a potentially illegal political stuntcarried out at the expense of vulnerable people, fueled speculation that DeSantis, currently seeking reelection in Florida, could be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid.
“These numbers present a challenge. They are high, but it's a challenge that we faced before,” said Greg Prieto, a sociology professor at the University of San Diego and author of two books focusing on immigrants in the U.S.
The U.S. has the ability to respond to the high number of encounters at the border, Prieto said. He pointed out that the U.S. admitted tens of thousands of Ukrainians into the country earlier this year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Yet barriers remain for migrants from other countries hoping to ask for asylum in the U.S.
Prieto said the U.S. can move away from a response that focuses on keeping migrants out of the U.S., to one that addresses the realities of those arriving.
“We can embrace a different strategy and move from a security approach to seeing this as really a humanitarian challenge that we have the resources to meet.”
On Monday the San Diego City Council passed an ordinance further defining who is eligible to serve on the city’s Commission on Police Practices.