CBP’s Stats Show Last Month Was the Worst February at the Border in History

Plus, the Border Patrol chief deems illegal border-crossing a ‘national security threat’

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 25, 2024

As I’ve explained in the past, CBP’s monthly migrant encounter statistics are compiled on the first day of the next month and ready for release two weeks later, on the 15th. Under the Biden administration, however, when the numbers are bad, they’re usually late and released on a Friday afternoon. On the afternoon of March 22, CBP’s encounter stats were released, and yes, they’re bad. February 2024 was the second-worst month for apprehensions of illegal entrants since Congress cracked down on illegal entries in the wake of September 11th, after only February 2022 — also under the Biden administration — and the worst February for overall CBP Southwest border encounters ever.

For definitional purposes, “encounters” include both Border Patrol apprehensions and aliens deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry by CBP officers in the agency’s Office of Field Operations (OFO).

Border Patrol Apprehensions. Last month, Border Patrol agents apprehended 140,644 illegal migrants at the Southwest border, a 13.2 percent increase over January’s apprehension total. But then, January is traditionally the slowest month for entries at the border, so some rise was to be expected.

What’s much more concerning, however, is that last month’s apprehension totals were 7.75 percent higher than last February, when agents could rely on Title 42 to expel illegal migrants in lieu of detaining them or releasing them. Title 42’s over, however, and such expulsions are not an option anymore.

In terms of total apprehensions, last month’s totals trail February 2022, when agents apprehended more than 159,000 illegal entrants, roughly 13.6 percent more than last month and the highest apprehension total for the month in the last 23 years since February 2001 (when agents caught about 152,000 aliens).

But that only tells part of the story, and the part that’s left out explains how the border is getting worse.

During the 50 months that CDC orders mandating the expulsion of illegal entrants under Title 42 were in effect (March 2020 to May 2023), CBP divided up migrant apprehensions between “Title 42” — aliens expelled under those orders shortly after encounter — and “Title 8” aliens processed for removal proceedings under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which is Title 8 of the U.S. Code.

Of those 159,000-plus aliens apprehended in February 2022, more than 57 percent — almost 91,000 illegal migrants — were expelled under Title 42, while the rest, just fewer than 68,300, were processed for removal proceedings under the INA. All 140,644 migrants apprehended at the border last month, of course, were Title 8 cases.

In “Title 8” terms, therefore, last month was the worst February for apprehensions at the Southwest border since September 11th, and given that agents simply released 54 percent of them, more than 76,000 aliens, shortly after they were caught (most of the rest were almost definitely released shortly thereafter), you can understand why aliens think the border is “open” and keep coming.

That means that the border is actually getting worse, not better, and when migrant “travel season” starts this month, things are likely to be epically bad.

But even that only tells a small part of the story. In 2001, some 97.5 percent of all the aliens apprehended entering the United States were from Mexico, and nearly all of them were single adult males who could be quickly processed and returned back across the border.

Last month, just 35.5 percent of the aliens Border Patrol apprehended at the Southwest border were from Mexico, and fewer than 56 percent of those Mexican nationals were single adults. Some 32.7 percent of all apprehensions last months were alien adults with children travelling in “family units” (FMUs), a category of migrants that used to be so rare that CBP didn’t even start counting them until FY 2013.

There are two reasons why so many aliens in family units are entering now.

First, an Obama-era district court order prevents DHS from detaining FMUs for more than 20 days (the Biden administration simply stopped detaining them in December 2021), and second, the Biden administration signed a settlement agreement in December that bars DOJ from prosecuting adults in FMUs for illegal entry for the next eight years.

Those migrants — and more importantly, their smugglers — know that a kid is a free ticket to entry to the United States, and so family-unit migration is booming.

When you hear New York, Chicago, Boston, and Denver complain about their own migrant crises, they are really talking about migrant families, and in particular single parents with young children who have no real means to work. And not only isn’t the White House doing anything about FMUs, as that settlement agreement shows, this administration is only making the problem worse.

Southwest Border Encounters. But wait, there’s more, and it reveals why CBP’s February numbers are even worse than in prior years.

More than 49,000 aliens were deemed inadmissible at the Southwest border ports by OFO officers last month, or more than seven times as many as in February 2022 (6,840). Add those encounters to Border Patrol’s apprehensions, and last month’s numbers not only exceed the February 2022 encounter totals, but also the February 2001 Southwest border numbers.

CBP didn’t begin publishing statistics on Southwest border OFO encounters until FY 2017, a year in which a total of 111,275 aliens were deemed inadmissible at the ports there. In February that year, CBP officers encountered just over 4,801 inadmissible aliens at the ports on the U.S.-Mexico lines, a figure that, in my three decades of experience, was consistent with historical averages.

Southwest port encounters began to surge in the middle of FY 2022, when the Biden administration secretly started allowing migrants to schedule appointments at the ports using the CBP One app to request exemptions from expulsion under Title 42.

The White House finally publicized that CBP One policy in a January 5 press release, which stated:

When Title 42 eventually lifts, noncitizens located in Central and Northern Mexico seeking to enter the United States lawfully through a U.S. port of entry have access to the CBP One mobile application for scheduling an appointment to present themselves for inspection and to initiate a protection claim instead of coming directly to a port of entry to wait.

In reality, that policy (which I’ve dubbed the “CBP One app interview scheme”) went into effect not when Title 42 “lifted” on May 11, but instead a week after that press release was issued, on January 12.

Currently, 1,450 would-be illegal migrants can schedule port interviews using the app per day (42,050 in the 29 days of February 2024), which explains why the port encounter numbers last month were roughly 13 times what they were in February 2021 (3,546).

The sole rationale for the CBP One app interview scheme is to drive illegal entries down, but as the Border Patrol apprehension statistics above reveal, all it’s really doing is driving CBP’s total Southwest border encounter numbers through the roof. That the scheme isn’t working doesn’t appear to be dissuading the administration from continuing it, however.

“Got-Aways” and the “National Security Threat”. The one data point not captured in CBP’s Southwest border encounter statistics is the number of “got-aways”, that is, aliens who evade apprehension at the border and make their way into the United States.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens referred to the situation at the Southwest border as a “national security threat”, and looking at the nearly 895,000 apprehensions there in just the first five months of FY 2024, it’s hard to disagree.

As the chief explained, however:

That number is a large number, but what's keeping me up at night is the 140,000 known got-aways. ... Why are they risking their lives and crossing in areas where we can't get to? Why are they hiding? What do they have to hide? What are they bringing in? What is their intent? Where are they coming from? We simply don't know the answers to those questions. Those things for us are what represent the threat to our communities.

I recently referred to Owens’ statements in that interview as “refreshingly candid”, and boy, were they ever, but they were hardly reassuring. That said, it’s better for Border Patrol to recognize and identify a threat before it occurs so that the nation’s leaders can address it rather than ignore it and hope for the best.

What Would Mark Twain Say? Unfortunately, our nation’s leaders — the president and his administration and Congress alike — are largely MIA on this threat. It reminds me of the quip attributed to Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The difference is that nobody can do anything about the weather, but the administration and/or Congress can fix the border. It’s just not happening.

Migrant travel season has just started, and if CBP’s February encounter statistics are any gauge, FY 2024 will be the worst year for illegal entries in history. Three things could alter that, however: (1) President Biden could change his policies; (2) Congress could pass border reforms; or (3) the “national security threat” Chief Owens warned about could become reality. Here’s hoping for options (1) or (2).