Decoding CBP’s Southwest Border Statistics for May

Not what they appear to be — they’re much, much worse

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 26, 2023

CBP released its Southwest border encounter statistics for May last week, along with its usual self-congratulatory “Monthly Operational Update”. Both require some decoding because neither is what it appears to be at first glance — they are much, much worse.

By way of explanation, “encounters” are the total of illegal entrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents at the border between the ports entry plus aliens deemed inadmissible (generally because they lack proper entry documents) by officers in CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) component at the ports.

Border Patrol Apprehensions. In May, Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border apprehended more than 169,000 illegal migrants, a slightly less than 8 percent decline from April, about 75 percent as many apprehensions as in May 2022, and a 2 percent drop from May 2021. That’s the good news.

Here’s the beginning of the bad news: Last month’s apprehension total was the third highest for the month of May in recorded history at the Southwest border (records go back to FY 2000), after just the last two fiscal years. In other words, Biden’s DHS is only doing better in comparison to its own prior performance, and its record at the U.S.-Mexico line has been historically bad.

Worse, agents are on track to make more than 2.116 million apprehensions in FY 2023, which would make this fiscal year the second worst at the Southwest border for apprehensions in history, again only trailing FY 2022, which was such an epic disaster that the administration attempted to hide the stats in late-Friday-night “news dumps”.

Where’s the Post-Title 42 Surge? Not to worry, however, because according to the Monthly Operational Update:

More than half of the U.S. Border Patrol’s encounters in May occurred prior to the lifting of the CDC’s Title 42 public health Order. From May 1 - 11, U.S. Border Patrol encountered 98,850 individuals between ports of entry along the Southwest border. After the termination of the order as of 11:59 pm ET on May 11 through the end of the month on May 31, U.S. Border Patrol’s encounters between ports of entry along the Southwest border were 70,394.

You can count me among those who believed illegal entries would surge immediately once CDC orders directing the expulsion of illegal migrants at the border, issued pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, ended, but I have an excuse: DHS had been warning of a migrant onslaught post-Title 42 since last March.

In fact, in an apparently hurried last-minute court filing on May 11, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol averred that: “The termination of Title 42 is expected to lead to a further surge in migrants, with number of encounters [sic] predicted at an average of 12,000-14,000 noncitizen [sic] per day.”

That said, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of CBP’s contentions about the pace of daily apprehensions post-Title 42 in its operational update. So, why hasn’t that migrant surge developed?

I can think of a few reasons, beginning with a massive effort mounted by the state of Texas since the beginning of May to stop aliens from entering illegally, which my colleague Todd Bensman has described from the ground at the border in the past month.

As Bensman explains, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R):

has deployed state police and national guard troops, bolstered by forces coming from more than a dozen other states, to physically block immigrants from leaving the water or riverbank. These forces, some armed with pepper-ball air guns, guard from behind coils of razor wire that Texas has strung for miles along popular river crossing spots.

Note that Texas has been deploying resources and units from the state’s Department of Public Safety and National Guard troops at the border since March 2021 as part of its “Operation Lone Star”, but up until recently those efforts were largely directed at apprehending aliens once they entered, not at deterring entries per se.

This state effort has added a level of uncertainty for would-be migrants and, more importantly, their smugglers. But it can’t go on forever.

And such uncertainty has been compounded by an 11th-hour Biden administration attempt to change the rules governing the treatment of illegal entrants and their eligibility for asylum. As my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs has explained, those changes aren’t all they are cracked up to be, but expect some lag time between the implementation of those new rules and smugglers finding the loopholes in them.

Among those loopholes is an exception for adult aliens entering illegally with children in “family units” (FMUs), and there the Border Patrol apprehension statistics are not so upbeat.

Agents apprehended nearly 45,000 illegal FMU migrants at the Southwest border in May, a more modest 3.5 percent decline compared to April, but a nearly 35 percent increase over Border Patrol’s March FMU apprehension totals.

The Biden administration has refused to detain family migrants since December 2021, despite the April 2019 findings of a bipartisan federal panel that widespread FMU migrant releases encourage would-be adult migrants to bring kids along on their journeys to the United States, exposing both young and old to criminal predation and physical hazards, and children in particular to unconscionable trauma.

Consequently, expect the number of migrants entering illegally in family units to jump in the next few months as smugglers exploit this FMU exception, and overall illegal entries to soar once smugglers sort out the gaps in the new Biden border policies.

In the interim, take the administration’s bluster about the effectiveness of those policies with a grain of salt.

You don’t have to trust me on this point. Consider the following, from a June 12 Politico article headlined “Biden officials are publicly touting the lack of a migrant surge. Privately, they’re scared”. It quotes a former administration official, who admits: “Are the measures big enough that they can diminish the urge to come between ports of entry and illegally? Nobody knows. And if they tell you they know, then they’re bulls***ing”.

“Bulls***ing”, indeed.

Aliens Deemed Inadmissible at the Ports of Entry. Back to the main point, the Border Patrol apprehension numbers are where any good news in the CBP Southwest border statistics ends, as OFO encounters there jumped in May to a new all-time monthly record.

In May, CBP officers at the ports stopped more than 35,000 inadmissible aliens. By comparison, that’s more than twice as many Southwest border port encounters than in May 2022 (16,766), and a greater than 19 percent increase over April (28,080).

In the first eight months of FY 2023 alone, CBP officers at the Southwest border ports have encountered more than 231,000 inadmissible aliens — 34 percent more than in all of FY 2022, 83 percent more than in FY 2019 (126,001), more than twice as many as in FY 2017 (111,275) and FY 2018 (124,511), three times as many as in FY 2021 (75,480), and four times the port encounter total for FY 2020 (57,437).

And that’s the way that the administration wants it because the president’s plan is to funnel all of the would-be illegal migrants at the Southwest border through the ports to hide the scope of his disaster there.

CBP One App Interview Scheme. There are actually two separate connivances the administration has implemented in pursuit of that goal, one — which I’ve termed the “CBP One app interview scheme” — that is unique to illegal migrants at the Southwest border ports.

That scheme enables would-be illegal migrants without any right to be admitted to schedule “interview appointments” at the Southwest border ports using the CBP One app to be processed for release into the country.

Of course, there’s no legal sanction for this scheme in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In fact, section 235(b) of the INA mandates that all such inadmissible aliens be detained — but that does not stop CBP from trumpeting the efficiency of that scheme in its operational update:

From May 1 to May 11, CBP ports of entry processed over 7,000 Title 42 exception requests under Title 42 using the CBP One application. From May 12 to May 31, CBP ports of entry processed over 20,000 individuals with an appointment scheduled through the CBP One application.

There’s no legal difference between aliens who show up at a port of entry without proper admission documents and those who enter illegally. And yet, as that excerpt reveals, the Biden administration pretends those migrants at the ports are somehow “doing it the right way”. They’re not.

Worse, the monthly operational update reveals that the administration is expanding the facially illegal CBP One app interview scheme in two separate ways.

First, starting on June 1, the number of port interview slots was increased from 1,000 per day to 1,250 — allowing the administration to move an additional 7,500 illegal migrants into the country each month (for a monthly total of 37,500).

Second: “The CBP One application [has now] transitioned to a new daily appointment allocation scheduling process to allow for more flexibility and access to the scheduling system by making appointments available for 23 hours each day instead of at a designated time”.

That means, for example, instead of a would-be migrant being stuck with an appointment at 10:15 on June 26 at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry (in the Rio Grande Valley) to enter the country illegally, that same migrant will instead be allowed to show up at the Hidalgo port any point between midnight and 11:00 PM on June 26 to enter the country illegally.

There’s so little visibility into this scheme that I am not actually sure what that 23-hour daily window looks like, but logically many if not most of those foreign nationals will show up at the ports at certain high-traffic times — as lawful travelers currently do. The effect of this new 23-hour regime on lawful travel remains to be seen, but it’s not likely to be a positive change for those seeking lawful admission.

In any event, the monthly update explains that “more than 106,000 individuals used the CBP One mobile application to schedule an appointment to present at a southwest border port of entry for inspection” between January 12 and May 31.

Given reports that more than 99 percent of those who have accessed this scheme have been allowed to enter, that’s an additional 106,000 illegal migrants that you can add to the Biden border total.

And speaking of the total number of illegal Southwest border migrants released into the United States under the current president, that number now stands — at an absolute minimum — at 2,184,124, a population larger than Dallas and San Francisco combined, or about 70,000 more people than live in New Mexico, the 36th largest U.S. state.

I derived that figure from court-ordered disclosures in Texas v. Biden (which ended in July 2022), plus CBP statistics for Border Patrol releases over the past 10 months. I have no way of knowing how many aliens encountered by OFO at the Southwest border ports have been released (though I have a pretty good guess), nor how many aliens encountered by Border Patrol and OFO were transferred to ICE and released by that agency (likely nearly all of them from what I have been told informally).

Why don’t I have an official total release figure? The Biden administration refuses to disclose it — likely with good reason.

Were the law-enforcement, fiscal, and national-security implications of the president’s feckless and mercurial border policies not so dire, the Pollyannish way Biden’s CBP releases its border data would be almost cute, in the manner of a toddler caught stealing the last cookie and denying it. But there’s nothing cute about what’s going on at the Southwest border, and it’s time for the administration to stop “bulls***ing” about it.