Understanding ‘Recidivism’ at the Southwest Border

When ‘experts’ tell you the Biden border disaster isn’t bad, don’t believe them

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 28, 2021

In its recent “Operational Update”, CBP attempts to soft-peddle the fact that almost 1.5 million aliens have been apprehended by Border Patrol at the Southwest border this fiscal year by asserting that as a whole, CBP encounters this year only involved “1,002,722 unique individuals”. What the agency is referring to is “recidivism”, in this context the serial illegal entry of aliens who have been apprehended and expelled. It’s a canard, and whether it’s CBP or so-called “experts” spouting it, don’t believe them.

First, the nearly 1.5 million aliens apprehended thus far in FY 2021 are more than in any single fiscal year since FY 2000 (1,643,679). September’s numbers will break that record.

DHS uses several different metrics to assess Border Patrol’s effectiveness in deterring illegal entrants between the ports of entry, as a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains. The recidivism rate is one. Simply put, if aliens keep coming back, Border Patrol is not deterring them.

The rate is calculated by dividing the number of unique aliens apprehended multiple times by the total number of apprehensions. According to a 2017 DHS analysis, the Southwest border recidivism rate was at or above 30 percent from FY 2005 until FY 2009, fell below 25 percent in FY 2011 and then below 20 percent in FY 2016 (when it was 12 percent).

Why did the recidivism rate fall? Because increasing numbers of migrants were other than Mexican nationals (OTMs). It was only in FY 2014 that the number of OTM illegal migrants (252,600) exceeded the number of those who were Mexican nationals (226,771). In FY 2009, by contrast, nine out of 10 illegal migrants Border Patrol apprehended at the Southwest border were Mexican nationals.

When Mexican nationals are apprehended entering illegally, they are usually quickly sent to the closest border port of entry and returned. That puts them close to the border if they want to seek reentry, and many do.

When OTMs were traditionally removed from the United States, however, they were sent back home, meaning that they couldn’t simply reenter by crossing back over the border. Instead, they had to travel much farther to reenter, and were less able to come back even if they wanted to.

The total rate of recidivism as calculated for CBP for all U.S. borders was 10 percent in FY 2017, 11 percent in FY 2018, and 7 percent in FY 2019. That’s not just the Southwest border, but also includes Canada and the coastal borders.

That said, while illegal migrants attempt to enter illegally at those other borders, they do not do so in as large a number as they do across the Mexican border with the United States. The total apprehensions at other borders so far in FY 2021 has been 2,476, just 822 of whom have entered illegally across the Canadian border.

The recidivism rate increased to 26 percent in FY 2020 after CBP began expelling aliens under orders issued by the CDC in response to the Covid-19 pandemic under Title 42 of the U.S. Code. The aliens expelled under Title 42 were not just Mexican nationals, but OTMs as well.

Note that those “Title 42” orders have continued under the Biden administration (the last was issued in August), although a federal judge has ordered DHS not to expel families under Title 42.

Title 42 explains why, according to CBP, 25 percent of the agency’s “encounters” at the Southwest border (almost 209,000 aliens) in August involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months. That, of course, is still lower than the recidivism rates prior to FY 2011, but higher than it had been in recent years.

Supporters of the president’s immigration policies have argued, somewhat accurately, that the Southwest border apprehension numbers this fiscal year have been inflated by the recidivism rate, which in turn has been boosted by Title 42 expulsions that placed illegal migrants close to the U.S. border for a quick return.

There are the same or fewer “unique” aliens being apprehended this year than in FY 2019 (for example) they have contended, but the apprehension numbers look higher because they are artificially overstated by recidivists who were expelled under Title 42, turned around, and returned.

I say “somewhat accurately” for three reasons.

First, CBP has now admitted that year to date in FY 2021, it has encountered “1,002,722 unique individuals ... compared to 851,513 during the same time period in Fiscal Year 2019”. That itself requires some analysis and explanation, which I will provide below.

But second, even if illegal migrants are recidivist “frequently fliers”, Border Patrol agents still must expend already strained resources to pursue and apprehend them. In fact, recidivists are usually more difficult for agents to catch because they don’t want to be arrested; they know that if they are apprehended, they will simply be expelled again.

Third, if you take the number of “unique individuals” encountered in just the first 11 months of FY 2021, Border Patrol apprehensions appear to have already exceeded the numbers from FY 2000 — before the Southwest border was beefed up following September 11th. Why do I say “appear”? Because CBP has the recidivist numbers for illegal entrants at the Southwest border, but they are not disclosing them.

Before I explain, however, historical numbers on “unique individuals” are hard to come by, as before partisans attempted to explain away failures at the border, no one really thought much about them (for the second reason above). Whether it was an illegal migrant’s first or tenth apprehension, Border Patrol still had to catch them.

In 2013, however, CRS produced a report captioned “Border Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry” that contains some informative statistics.

Figure 7 in that report is captioned “USBP [U.S. Border Patrol] Southwest Border Unique Subjects and Recidivism Rates”, which was based on statistics CRS had received that year from CBP.

There are no recidivism rates for FY 2000 through FY 2004, and although the report charts total apprehensions and “unique subjects”, the specific numbers for each fiscal year are not included.

Looking at that chart, though, the number of unique subjects who were apprehended by Border Patrol in FY 2000 was much lower than one million (somewhere at or near 900,000, but again, exact figures were not included).

Which brings me back to what CBP has, and has not, disclosed.

In discussing recidivism, the August CBP Operational Update refers to yearly alien “encounters”, which includes not just migrants who have been apprehended illegally by Border Patrol, but also aliens who were deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry.

It also does not explain how many of those “unique individuals” were encountered at the Southwest border, but rather includes total CBP encounters. (Or does it? More on that below.)

Thus far in FY 2021, CBP nationwide has encountered just short of 1,742,000 aliens, both at the borders and the ports. The vast majority (1,472,655, or 84.5 percent) have been Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border. That said, I cannot tell you that 84.5 percent of the “unique individuals” CBP identified in its August update were migrants apprehended by Border Patrol at the Southwest border, because I don’t know for sure.

The best that I can do is determine the lowest number of unique individuals who were illegal migrants apprehended at the Southwest border by subtracting the total number of inadmissible aliens at the ports nationwide (266,826), and all migrants apprehended at the other borders (again, 2,476).

That total is 733,420, which is higher than the total number of aliens who have been apprehended at the Southwest border (including double counting for recidivists) in the last 13 years, except for FY 2019 (851,508).

That said, if the Border Patrol recidivism rate in FY 2019 was 7 percent, the total for that year would have been 792,000, which means Border Patrol at the Southwest border will break even that record easily this year.

Keep in mind that the total number of unique migrants apprehended at the Southwest border in FY 2021 is almost definitely much higher than 753,000-plus. Many of the aliens who were stopped from entering at the ports decided to simply reenter illegally, but they would still count as recidivists for CBP’s purposes because the agency has encountered them before.

And there would have been recidivists at the ports of entry, too: An alien denied entry on one day would come back on another day or at another port. But by my imperfect accounting, each time those inadmissible aliens appeared at a port, they would count as one “unique individual”.

There is proof that the number of illegal migrant apprehensions at the Southwest border is much higher than 753,000, however.

CBP states that it had 156,641 “unique encounters” in August. Doing the same calculation as above (subtracting all ports and other borders), that leaves a minimum of 121,856 unique Border Patrol encounters of illegal migrants at the Southwest border last month — a maximum recidivism rate of just over 38 percent.

If the recidivism rate in FY 2021 has been 38 percent (which again would be a high estimate), the total number of individual migrants apprehended at the Southwest border this year is just over 913,000 — more alien apprehensions at that border in any year since FY 2006 (almost 1.072 million).

But again, the recidivism rate that year was just about 30 percent, and so FY 2021’s apprehensions far exceed the total in FY 2006 already. In fact, assuming CRS’s accounting is correct, they exceed all yearly totals (excluding recidivists) going all the way back to 1999 — and likely much further.

Additional evidence is found in CBP’s statement that the recidivism rate for its total encounters at the Southwest border in August was 25 percent. Last month, CBP encountered almost 209,000 aliens at the Southwest border, including 13,329 at the ports there. Subtracting those port encounters from 75 percent of total CBP encounters yields a recidivism rate for illegal migrants of less than 27 percent.

And that’s the highest that the Border Patrol recidivism rate at the Southwest border could have been, because again some of the aliens turned away at the ports would have reentered illegally or sought admission again at a different place and/or time, and therefore not have been “unique individuals” under CBP’s definition.

CBP is plainly counting the number of unique aliens apprehended at the Southwest border by Border Patrol (because it has such an exact count of unique CBP encounters as a total), but it is not sharing those numbers with the general public. Why? I can’t tell you for sure, but it is likely to hide the true extent of the disaster there.

Biden’s supporters will tell you, though, that the problem is not that bad, because CBP can (for the time being) return migrants back to Mexico under Title 42. That’s true, but it also misses the point that in FY 2000, when more than 1.64 million migrants were apprehended entering illegally, more than 98 percent of all migrants who were apprehended were Mexican nationals.

As explained above, almost all of them were returned to Mexico as quickly if not more quickly than migrants who are being expelled under the CDC Title 42 orders. And in August, fewer than 91,500 of the more than 195,500 migrants apprehended at the Southwest border were expelled under Title 42. The other 104,000 (53 percent) are in the United States indefinitely (and likely permanently).

All of this would be an interesting parlor game, except for the fact that the “border is not that bad because the recidivism rate is high” crowd has actually shaped recent court decisions.

When he enjoined the use of Title 42 against families in the case referenced above, for example, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan cited the declaration of one such “expert”, holding: “[T]hough Defendants contend that there has been a ‘historic’ level of enforcement encounters at the border, the statistics Defendants cite ‘overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border.’”

Even if you go by the “overstated” metric, the current number of “unique individuals” apprehended at the Southwest border is still “historically high”: The current numbers are no more “overstated” than earlier ones, and the border is still a “historic” disaster.

One last, very important, point: I may be reading too much and too little into the CBP Operational Update. I have assumed that the “unique individuals” numbers that it cited in that document are for nationwide encounters, but there is reason to believe that they are not.

Again, the agency states that 25 percent of encounters at the Southwest border last month “involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months”. But then it states that: “The number of unique encounters in August 2021 was 156,641”.

There is no restriction on that latter statistic, nor on the one that reports that “1,002,722 unique individuals have been encountered” by CBP thus far in FY 2021. Because there is no such restriction, I have assumed that the agency was referencing total nationwide encounters and subtracted out other borders and ports in my calculations accordingly to determine unique Southwest border apprehensions.

Seventy-five percent of 208,887 (CBP’s Southwest encounters in August) equals 156,665 — 14 more than the total number of “unique individuals” whom the agency asserts it encountered at the Southwest border in August. That’s quite the coincidence, and one that would mean that every other alien (save 14) encountered at every other port (including airports) and at all other borders was a recidivist.

If that 1.002 million-plus number for unique individuals encountered in FY 2021 is also just for the Southwest border, then subtracting out aliens deemed inadmissible at the Southwest ports this year equals almost 934,000 “unique” illegal migrants apprehended there after entering illegally this year — which would almost definitely be an all-time record (tell Judge Sullivan).

No matter how you cut it, however, Border Patrol at the Southwest border is dealing with an unprecedented disaster this fiscal year. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise — even if they are “experts”. You can just look at the pictures for yourself.