February Border Numbers Give Away Administration’s Game

Hiding its border crisis by funneling migrants through ports of entry, including interior airports

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 20, 2023

On March 15, CBP released its border numbers for the month of February. Border Patrol’s Southwest border apprehensions last month were roughly unchanged since January, with just short of 129,000 migrants again caught entering illegally, but average daily apprehensions have spiked. In its February “Operational Update”, CBP took an unwarranted victory lap — unwarranted because when you drill down into them, the stats are giving away the truth of the administration’s game. Likely worse, however, that update reveals that Biden’s DHS either misrepresented its reasons for ending “Remain in Mexico” or doesn’t really care that much about the safety of migrants on the other side of the line.

February’s Apprehension Numbers. In the 28 days of February, agents at the Southwest border apprehended 128,877 illegal migrants, 26 fewer than they had in the 31 preceding days the month before. On average, however, agents caught more than 4,600 illicit entrants daily in February, compared to 4,158 on an average day in January — a more than 9 percent increase.

To put all those numbers into context, that’s more Southwest border apprehensions for the month of February than in any fiscal year between FY 2002 and FY 2021. To be fair to the Biden administration, it’s also more than 20,000 apprehensions fewer than in February 2022, but given that apprehensions hit all-time highs last fiscal year, it’s not much to write home about.

Notably, last month’s apprehension numbers at the U.S.-Mexico line were more than 325 percent higher than they were in February 2020 — the last month before the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic was declared, and the month before the CDC issued its first order under Title 42 of the U.S. Code directing the expulsion of all illegal entrants at the land border in response to that pandemic.

Encounters. But the news is worse yet. CBP “encountered” nearly 155,000 inadmissible aliens at the Southwest border in February, at a rate of more than 5,535 per day.

“Encounters” in this context are the sum of aliens apprehended by Border Patrol agents entering illegally plus aliens seeking admission who were deemed inadmissible by CBP officers at the ports of entry.

The 26,121 aliens deemed inadmissible at the Southwest border ports was the fifth highest number in recorded history (CBP inadmissibility records go back to October 2016), trailing only the four previous months, October through January.

That only tells part of the story, however. Last month, CBP officers at all of the ports of entry — along the Northern, Southwestern, and coastal borders, and at the interior airports — combined stopped more than 82,000 inadmissible aliens, an all-time record.

The Game. Which brings me back to the Biden administration’s current game.

For some months leading up to January 25, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed to schedule appointments at the Southwest border ports of entry for would-be illegal migrants who claimed that they should be “excepted” from the Title 42 process on humanitarian grounds. Just over 23,000 aliens were scheduled by NGOs for Southwest border port appointments in December, for example.

On January 5, the White House announced that the Biden administration would be replacing that ad hoc NGO scheduling scheme with a new protocol, allowing inadmissible aliens to schedule port appointments themselves though the CBP One mobile application (available on the Apple App Store and on Google play).

That combination of NGO and CBP One scheduling is one reason why the number of inadmissible aliens at the Southwest border ports has been running at historically high levels since October. Those aliens are still here illegally because they are still inadmissible — they just didn’t have to go through the process of entering illegally and getting caught and processed to be released. All they had to do was show up at a port.

That’s just part of the Biden administration’s game, however.

In that January 5 White House announcement, the administration also announced that it would be expanding an October program that grants two-year authorized periods of “parole” to would-be illegal migrants from Venezuela to cover would-be illegal migrants from Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba, too, at a rate of 30,000 per month.

Those aliens don’t have to bring their parole documents to the Southwest border to enter; rather, the idea is that they can fly directly to the interior of the United States from Caracas, Managua, Port-au-Prince, or Havana, without paying a smuggler to trek through Mexico.

The Venezuelan program is an illegal use of DHS’s limited parole authority, as my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs has explained, and that program and its January 5 extension are consequently the subject of a suit brought by 20 state plaintiffs in Texas v. DHS.

Aliens who enter the United States on parole are inadmissible, not least because they lack a valid immigrant or nonimmigrant visa to enter the United States (they may also be inadmissible on health, criminal, national security, and other grounds, too).

In February, nearly 12,300 Venezuelan nationals were deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry nationwide — just over 4,100 at the Southwest land border, 34 at the Northern border, and the remaining 8,150 at interior airports.

More than 23,100 Nicaraguan, Haitian, and Cuban aliens were deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry nationwide: just over 14,900 at the Southwest border, 80 at the Northern border, and the rest (6,686) at the interior airports of entry.

Again, those Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Haitian, and Cuban nationals who have been granted parole under Biden’s January 5 plan are still here illegally, because they are inadmissible. They just don’t show up in CBP’s apprehension stats because in lieu of entering illegally, the administration ushered them into the United States in an illegal status through the ports.

CBP’s “Monthly Operational Update”. And that, in turn, brings me to CBP’s Monthly Operational Update for February. The January 5 White House announcement is formally captioned “New Border Enforcement Actions”, and the update begins with a quote from CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller, who asserted:

The new border enforcement measures kept February’s overall encounter numbers nearly even with January. ... We are also encouraged by the new functionality in the CBP One mobile application, which has provided migrants the ability to safely and easily schedule an appointment at a Port of Entry to request a humanitarian exception to the Title 42 public health order. The app cuts out the smugglers and decreases migrant exploitation. CBP continues to make improvements to the app to address feedback we have received from stakeholders. [Emphasis added.]

Migrants Can “Safely and Easily Schedule an Appointment”. If I’ve ever met Miller, I have no recollection of it, and thus would be loath to cast aspersions on him.

You would expect the acting commissioner of the nation’s border enforcement agency to understand, however, that third-country nationals who schedule appointments at the Southwest border ports of entry though CBP One already had to pay smugglers to get them to and then through Mexico to make their appointments.

Perhaps he was as “misinformed” about how smuggling works as Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) was that Casablanca is in the middle of the desert, in the 1942 classic of the same name. Or possibly, like that film’s Captain Renault (Claude Rains), he would be “shocked, shocked” to find that smuggling is still occurring on the other side of the border, CBP One or not.

Title 42 and a Three-Month Wait. That CBP update continues:

In February, CBP processed over 20,000 individuals at POEs as exceptions to the Title 42 public health order based on an individual vulnerability assessment using the newly available functionality in the CBP One mobile application. While the high demand for these appointments has meant that not all individuals seeking appointments have yet been able to schedule them (individuals commonly waited more than three months in shelters to be considered under the Title 42 exception process before the use of CBP One), the transition of the exceptions process to CBP One allows more open access and has provided immediate benefits in reducing the exploitation of vulnerable persons seeking to present at [ports of entry]. [Emphasis added.]

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I’ll start with the fact that this statement makes clear that, under its current iteration at least, the CBP One port scheduling process is an “exception” to expulsion under Title 42, and therefore dependent on the continued viability of those CDC Covid-19 related orders.

The problem is that the administration contends that Title 42 will end on May 11 (whether the Supreme Court agrees is a different issue), meaning that any alien who started the process of scheduling a port of entry appointment after February 12 (counting back the CBP update's "three months" from May 11) will be out of luck.

The odds are that the administration will keep the CBP One scheduling process in place even after Title 42 ends, using it as a covert funnel for would-be illegal migrants to enter illegally through the ports without having them show up in Border Patrol’s monthly apprehension statistics.

Questions for Mayorkas. Then, there’s the fact that under the CBP One interview scheduling process, third-country migrants are waiting on the other side of the border in shelters for three months on average before they are interviewed at the ports.

Given that those migrants voluntarily took the risk of being stuck in Mexico indefinitely when they entered that country illegally, this shouldn’t bother most (it plainly doesn’t trouble CBP). The bigger issue is that it reveals a patent disconnect in the administration’s border policies.

The biggest reason why Southwest border apprehension numbers were so low in the months before the Covid-19 pandemic was because the Trump administration had implemented what it called the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico”.

Under MPP, third-country migrants caught entering illegally across the Southwest border would be sent back across to Mexico to await their removal hearings at “tent courts” at the ports of entry.

Trump strong-armed the Mexican government into agreeing to provide migrants returned under MPP “with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay”.

Despite its success and those diplomatic assurances, Biden hated Remain in Mexico, and one of his first acts as president was to suspend the program. His DHS secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has subsequently attempted to end MPP (twice), and in his second memo terminating the program, issued in October 2021, explained:

Significant evidence indicates that individuals awaiting their court hearings in Mexico under MPP were subject to extreme violence and insecurity at the hands of transnational criminal organizations that profited by exploiting migrants’ vulnerabilities. It is possible that such humanitarian challenges could be lessened through the expenditure of significant government resources currently allocated to other purposes. Ultimately, however, the United States has limited ability to ensure the safety and security of those returned to Mexico. [Emphasis added.]

Nothing suggests the U.S. government has “expended significant government resources” to protect migrants who are spending months waiting for their CBP One port of entry appointments, while smugglers are still “evil, vicious, heartless bastards”, and if anything, the northern border of Mexico has gotten more violent since Trump left.

That all suggests that Mayorkas either didn’t believe that Mexico was all that dangerous for illegal migrants in October 2021, or doesn’t care now. Congress may want to ask him about that, but neither option is a good look for a man many in the House GOP caucus want to see impeached.

Takeaways. CBP’s contentions notwithstanding, historic numbers of migrants continue entering illegally. That agency’s disclosures reveal the administration is hiding its border crisis by funneling greater numbers of would-be migrants through U.S. ports of entry, including interior airports. Likely worse, they suggest Biden’s DHS either misrepresented its reasons for ending Remain in Mexico or doesn’t really care that much about migrants’ safety.