In analyzing CBP’s statistics on Southwest border encounters (the sum of Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal migrants and aliens deemed inadmissible at the southern land ports), I noted that the number of aliens encountered who were not Mexican nationals (OTMs) or from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (ONTs) declined in February. A deeper dive into those numbers reveals that my colleague, Todd Bensman, may have been onto something when he suggested that the Biden administration’s returns of certain nationals by air was impacting the border crisis.
Bensman’s Take. Bensman broke a largely overlooked story in December when he reported DHS had begun “carrying out secretive and escalating air deportations” involving tens of thousands of illegal migrants, including Haitians, as well as adults and children from Guatemala and Honduras.
In a late February post, Bensman reported that those flights had continued into January and that the administration had expanded this effort to include nationals of Venezuela (who were being flown to Colombia under an agreement with that country), Brazil, and Ecuador.
As Bensman explained, even if the number of illegal migrants returned home was low, such returns were still an effective tactic to dissuade those migrants’ countrymen from undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States.
February’s Numbers. The February numbers on Southwest border encounters suggest Bensman was likely correct in his assessment of the effectiveness of those air deportations.
Haitians. Last month, CBP encountered just over 1,800 Haitians at the Southwest border, well over historic levels, but a 46 percent drop from January (3,371) and a marked decline from December (7,143). Most significantly, however, February’s CBP Haitian encounters were a fraction of what they were in September (17,638), when thousands of Haitians converged on the small border town of Del Rio, Texas.
Venezuelans. CBP encounters of Venezuelans plummeted, as well. Again, they, too, are running well ahead of historic averages, but compared to recent months, the 3,072 Venezuelans encountered at the Southwest border in February represented an 87.5 percent decline over January (22,779) and an 88 percent drop from December (24,805).
Put differently, of the nearly 84,500 Venezuelans CBP has encountered at the Southwest border in the first five months of FY 2022, just 3.6 percent were caught last month. Their numbers are headed in the right direction from a border-security standpoint.
Brazilians. The Brazilian numbers are not quite as good as the Venezuelan ones, but they, too, are on a positive trajectory.
In February, CBP encountered 1,358 Brazilian nationals at the Southwest border, less than half as many as the month before (2,766) and less than one-fifth of December’s apprehension totals (7,927). Of the just over 26,900 Brazilians CBP has encountered at the Southwest border in FY 2022, 5 percent were encountered last month.
Ecuadorans. The number of Ecuadoran nationals encountered by CBP at the Southwest border actually increased last month over January (to 682 from 604) but is nothing like FY 2021’s totals. Last fiscal year, CBP encountered more than 96,000 Ecuadoran nationals at the Southwest border, a number that peaked in August when more than 17,600 Ecuadorans were caught there.
Northern Triangle Families. As with the Ecuadorans, there was a slight bump in the number of CBP encounters at the Southwest border of “family units” (FMUs, adult migrants entering illegally with children) from the Northern Triangle in February compared to January, but the numbers are surprisingly low.
Last month, CBP encountered 7,680 Northern Triangle migrants in FMUs at the Southwest border, just short of a 12 percent increase over January (6,873). Notably, however, February encounters were just 52 percent of what they were in the same month in 2021 (14,752).
February 2021 was a harbinger of what became a massive surge in Northern Triangle FMUs last fiscal year. All told, there were more than 275,000 Northern Triangle FMU encounters at the Southwest border in FY 2021, 96 percent of whom (264,851) were apprehended after Biden’s inauguration in late January.
Biden Administration Air Removals. So, are the air removals that Bensman has described the reason why CBP Southwest border encounters of Haitians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, Ecuadorans, and Northern Triangle FMUs are on the decline?
It is difficult at this point to be sure, largely because the Biden administration has been circumspect in even discussing those returns, and thus has not officially taken credit for the decline in CBP Southwest border encounters involving aliens of these nationalities and demographic groups.
Politically (and ironically), it makes a degree of sense for the White House to be mum about this program. One of the few groups that approve of Biden’s immigration performance is Democrats: In a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll, 53 percent of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of the issue, but two-thirds (67 percent of Democrats) approved of Biden’s immigration performance.
Biden plainly does not want to alienate his base in advance of the midterm 2022 elections, and removing aliens is largely unpopular among so-called “progressives”. The border numbers are bad overall, so Biden is not likely to get much credit for his border performance from the electorate as a whole until the situation there gets much better, while a program that is controversial among his own party’s left wing would just make his polling numbers worse.
There may additional reasons for the drop in encounters involving aliens of those nationalities and in those demographic groups. Improving conditions in those countries would be one, while another would be the fact that the first few months of this fiscal year are not prime “travel season” for illegal migrants. What's more, for Venezuelans, Mexico starting requiring visas in January, making it harder for them to simply fly to cities near the border and then cross.
Biden Should Apply Air Removals to All Nationals and Demographic Groups. If those air removals are the reason why CBP encounters among these groups are on the decline, however, the president and his advisors need to expand the program to all illegal migrants across the board.
There was a large February increase in CBP encounters of illegal migrants at the Southwest border with respect to aliens who are not nationals of Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, or Ecuador (more than 158,000, up 26 percent from January). Most significantly, the number of encounters of illegal migrants who are not from those countries, the Northern Triangle, or Mexico hit their highest monthly level ever (47,655).
Such “long-distance” migrants are the most difficult for DHS to remove and require many more resources for CBP to handle. If those numbers increase even more, the catastrophe that is the Southwest border would be in a full-on, Chernobyl-style meltdown. In that scenario, Border Patrol would be utterly helpless to stop drugs, other contraband, and terrorists from coming right in.
That is especially true as relates to FMUs from those “other” countries. Encounters among this demographic also reached their highest monthly total ever in February, as CBP encountered 13,338 aliens in family units from someplace other than Mexico, the Northern Triangle, Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, or Ecuador.
If dealing with a mother and her two children is problematic and time-consuming for Border Patrol agents generally, imagine how much worse it becomes when that family speaks only Hindi, Romanian, Mandarin, Russian, Ukrainian, or Turkish. Nearly 1,600 of the migrants in FMUs encountered by CBP at the Southwest border in February came from countries where those are the official languages.
Bensman is likely onto something when he states that air removals of certain illegal migrants make it less likely for other foreign nationals of the same nationalities or in the same demographic groups to enter illegally. The president may be onto something, too, but only if he pursues the opportunity to do much, much more.