Predicting the Next ‘Del Rio’

‘Who’s going where’ in the unfolding border disaster

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 28, 2021

FY 2021 set a record for Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border (driven largely by the policies of the Biden administration), and in my last post, I explained why those numbers are even worse than they appear. September 2021 was an inflection point in that disaster, as 15,000 migrants — mostly Haitians — descended on the border town of Del Rio, Texas, making “Del Rio” shorthand for the chaos at the border. There will be another “Del Rio”, with a massive wave of migrants overwhelming federal resources. The question is “Where?”

CBP’s recently released statistics provide a guide, as they reveal that while all nine of the Border Patrol’s Southwest border sectors were significantly impacted by the migrant surge, some got it worse than others, and some were dealing with very different populations of migrants.

Rio Grande Valley Sector

Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV) sector has taken the brunt of the migrant surge by any objective measure. Agents there apprehended almost 550,000 illegal migrants in FY 2021, nearly a third of the 1.659 million-plus apprehensions at the Southwest border last fiscal year.

In a year in which 22 percent of all illegal migrants were not from the traditional “source” countries of Mexico or the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, RGV bucked that trend.

“Other than Mexican” (OTM) and “other than Northern Triangle” (ONT) migrants made up less than 10 percent of apprehensions in the RGV in FY 2021, just fewer than 52,300 OTM/ONTs all told.

Breaking down the three main demographic categories (single adults, adults entering illegally with children in family units (FMUs), and unaccompanied alien children (UACs)), nearly half (257,343, or 46.8 percent) of the aliens apprehended in the RGV in FY 2021 were in family units, 39.2 percent (215,450) were single adults, and 76,284 migrants (13.9 percent of total RGV apprehensions) were UACs.

In FY 2022 at the Southwest border as a whole, Border Patrol agents apprehended 144,834 UACs, 451,087 aliens in family units, and 1,063,285 single adults. By percentage, of the more than 1.659 million illegal migrants apprehended at the Southwest border, 8.73 percent were unaccompanied children, 27.19 percent were in family units, and 64.08 percent were single adults.

That means that agents in the RGV had to deal with almost half of all aliens in FMUs and more than half of all UACs apprehended at the Southwest border in FY 2021, but the illegal migrants that they saw were almost exclusively from those four traditional source countries.

The RGV is comparably better staffed than most other Southwest border sectors. Of the 16,878 agents stationed at the Southwest border (as of the end of FY 2020), more than 18 percent — 3,119 — were in the RGV.

Given the fact that 18 percent of the Southwestern Border Patrol agents apprehended almost a third of all illegal migrants in FY 2021, however, the RGV is plainly undermanned.

Before there was “Del Rio”, there were pictures of migrants being detained in the open in Mission, Texas — in the heart of the RGV — in March. As the Los Angeles Times described the scene:

Up to 600 families were assembled in recent days at the site under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping in the dirt, exposed to the elements, without much food or access to medical care, according to several people who said they were released this week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We asked them why we were there for so long,” Karen Coello, 24, of Honduras, who had been kept at the site for three days with her 5-year-old daughter, Valeria, said Tuesday after being released to a local shelter. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”

Why were hundreds of families “sleeping in the dirt” in Mission? In March, the Biden administration was in denial that anything was out of the ordinary when it came to illegal migration (with the president telling reporters, “The truth of the matter is, nothing has changed,”) and thus failed to supplement Border Patrol’s resources in the RGV.

“Del Rio” was a fireball, but the Anzalduas Bridge was a wake-up call, and Biden’s DHS hit the snooze button, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Why are so many of the FMUs and UACs apprehended at the Southwest border heading to the RGV? It is the southernmost sector at the Southwest border, and the closest to the Northern Triangle (three-quarters of the migrants apprehended in Del Rio were Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans).

It is also an established crossing point for Central American smugglers bringing migrant families and UACs. Running migrants to the RGV is part of their “business model”, and in their perverse logic, it works, so why stop now?

Del Rio

The migrants crossing illegally at Del Rio, however, are very different from the ones in the RGV.

More than 259,000 migrants were apprehended by Del Rio sector Border Patrol agents in FY 2021, and of those, almost 176,000 (67.8 percent) were single adults. Just fewer than 75,000 aliens in family units (28.9 percent of the total) were taken into Border Patrol custody there, and an additional 8,562 (3.3 percent) were unaccompanied children.

The FMU numbers were comparable to their percentages border-wide (in FY 2021, FMUs made up 27.19 percent of all Southwestern border apprehensions), but even though their numbers were historically high in Del Rio, fewer UACs by percentage crossed there than along the border as a whole (UACs were 8.73 percent of all illegal migrants at the Southwest border in FY 2021).

In other words, single adults were slightly more likely to have entered illegally at the Del Rio sector in FY 2021 and UACs were much less likely to have crossed there, while FMUs were close to average.

By nationality, however, Del Rio was an outlier. More than 44 percent of the aliens apprehended by Border Patrol in the Del Rio sector were OTM/ONTs, twice their numbers by percentage border-wide.

There were also more than 72,000 Mexican nationals apprehended there (27.86 percent of the total), nearly 55,500 Hondurans (21.39 percent), 10,300-plus Guatemalans (just less than 4 percent), and fewer than 6,900 Salvadorans (2.65 percent).

Not only were proportionally more OTM/ONTs apprehended in Del Rio sector than along the border as a whole, but those “other” nationalities also made up a disproportionate number of the aliens apprehended in family units there.

More than 82 percent of the family units apprehended in the Del Rio sector were OTMs/ONTs: 61,560 migrants out of the nearly 75,000 FMUs apprehended there. Border Patrol sector statistics do not break out those “other” nationalities, but from my observations there, they were largely Haitian and Cuban — most of whom were coming from South America (where they had been living), not the Caribbean.

As my colleague Todd Bensman has explained in his reporting from the border and Central America, large numbers of Haitians and Cubans had resettled in South America, but were lured by the open Biden border to come to the United States.

I confirmed this when I found plies of identification documents from Chile (largely issued to Haitian nationals) and Uruguay (for Cubans) discarded on the banks of the Rio Grande by aliens who did not want the fact that they had been firmly resettled in third countries to be discovered when making their asylum claims.

Smugglers and their OTM/ONT clients plainly prefer entering at Del Rio, and Bensman explained why: The cartels on the other side of the river don’t charge illegal migrants a “tax” to cross their “territory” on their way to the United States.

Agents in Del Rio were uniquely ill-positioned to deal with this surge. In FY 2020, there were just 1,504 of them in the entire sector, which covers more than 55,000 square miles and includes 245 miles of the border itself.

Shockingly, that is down from almost 1,700 Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio sector in FY 2009. CBP was plainly not prepared for the more than five-fold (542 percent) increase in illegal migrants between FY 2020 and FY 2021 there.

Still, Del Rio was not the sector that saw the largest increase in illegal migrants in FY 2021.


That dubious distinction goes to the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector. From 8,804 apprehensions in FY 2020, agents in that picturesque Arizona region made almost 114,500 apprehensions in FY 2021, a 1,200 percent increase.

Border Patrol agents in Yuma apprehended more than 60,000 aliens in FMUs, more than 48,000 single adults, and almost 6,000 UACs in FY 2021.

As those statistics show, Yuma got more than its fair share of FMUs in FY 2021, and more than 90 percent of those FMU migrants were not Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran — they were OTM/ONTs.

The Border Patrol’s Yuma sector was uniquely under-resourced to deal with that surge: There were only 784 Border Patrol agents in Yuma at the end of FY 2020, down from nearly 1,000 in FY 2010.

Why has Border Patrol staffing fallen so much in Yuma? I am not privy to CBP staffing decisions, but the reason likely has to do with the fact that unlike in other parts of the Southwest border, most of the southern part of Yuma sector has fencing, which I described in my reporting from the area in February 2019.

There are few if any such fences in Del Rio sector, where the shallow Rio Grande is the sole impediment (such as it is) to illegal entry.

That said, most illegal migrants in Yuma are simply turning themselves over to agents in the (reasonable) belief that they will be quickly released. Fewer than 20 percent of the migrants caught there were expelled under orders issued by the CDC under Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, compared to an official 62.7 percent Title 42 expulsion rate border-wide.

Therefore, the wall in Yuma is now just a metaphorical “speed bump” as opposed to a barrier for illegal migrants, and FMUs in particular. Fewer than 6,500 of the more than 60,000 aliens in FMUs apprehended in Yuma sector in FY 2021 were expelled under Title 42 — an expulsion rate of less than 11 percent.

The Next “Del Rio”

There are six other Border Patrol sectors at the Southwest border, but RGV, Del Rio, and Yuma really stick out in a bad border year. If there is another “Del Rio”, with migrants building their own shelters and traversing back and forth across the border to get their own supplies while awaiting Border Patrol processing, it will likely be in one of those three sectors.

That does not mean that the Laredo, Big Bend, El Paso, El Centro, Tucson, or San Diego sectors won’t be next, however, as new smugglers get into the “game”. Given the heavy cartel presence on the Mexican side, and the way that illegal migration works into their sick narco-trafficking business model, though, the routes are likely set into the foreseeable future.

So, where will the next “Del Rio” be? The odds are it will be in Del Rio sector, again. There are few, if any, agents actively patrolling the border there (they are too busy caring for the migrants that are turning themselves in), few natural barriers, and thanks to the Biden administration, no man-made barriers, either.

All of this is avoidable, and could be avoided if the Biden administration simply changed its border policies. I am cautiously optimistic that the reimplementation of the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico”, which was court-ordered in August, will provide some relief to agents at the Southwest border.

The Biden administration has, reluctantly, agreed to comply with that order and resuscitate MPP by mid-November, but it remains to be seen whether the Mexican government will comply, or how robustly DHS will use it. Anything has to be better than no deterrence at all, which is what we have now at the Southwest border under the 46th president.

That said, “Del Rio” has been a drag on the president’s polling numbers, and on those of his fellow Democrats as they seek reelection in what promise to be hotly contested midterm elections. The last “Del Rio” was an inflection point in the public’s perception of what is happening at the Southwest border. The next one could be the tipping point, for the president and his party.