Family Unit Apprehensions Soared in FY 2018

By Preston Huennekens on October 24, 2018

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has released the final tally for FY 2018 southwest border apprehensions. Immigration researchers and CBP use these apprehension numbers as an indicator of how many aliens are attempting to illegally cross the border. A high number of apprehensions suggests that a large number of people are trying to reach the United States.

In FY 2018, CBP apprehensions climbed to 396,579, surpassing the FY 2017 total of 303,916.

Figure 1. Total Apprehensions, 2013-2018

There has been little fluctuation year-to-year in total apprehensions at the Southwest border. The increase between FY 2017 and 2018 may indicate that the so-called "Trump effect" has worn off, and that the president's fiery rhetoric alone is not scaring people away from trying to illegally enter the United States.

CBP measures the number of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) who enter the United States without a parent or guardian. UACs are placed into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then "promptly places [them] in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child, taking into consideration danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight."

Although the number of apprehended UACs has not reached the level of the 2014 unaccompanied child migrant crisis, it still remains higher than the totals in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

Figure 2. Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Apprehensions, 2013-2018

The most alarming development is the rise in the number of family unit apprehensions between 2013 and 2018. With the exception of 2013 and 2015, family unit apprehensions remained in a window between 65,000 and 80,000. But in 2018, the number of apprehensions soared to over 107,000. This is largely driven by the smugglers' understanding of our catch-and-release loopholes. The White House released a statement saying that, "illegal immigration has shifted from primarily single adults from Mexico to family units and unaccompanied minors from Central America" due to these loopholes. My colleague Art Arthur recently penned an in-depth analysis of how these loopholes attract illegal entry into the United States, particularly by family units.

Figure 3. Family Unit Apprehensions, 2013-2018

To get a sense at how these apprehensions have changed since 2013, the figure below shows the percentage of all apprehensions that were family units. The share has risen substantially. In 2013, family units comprised only 3.6 percent of all apprehensions at the Southwest border. In 2018, over one in four (27.0 percent) of those apprehended were part of a family unit.

Figure 4. Family Unit Share of Total Apprehensions, 2013-2018

The surge of family unit apprehensions at the Southwest border suggests that smugglers and aliens are aware of our catch-and-release loopholes that allow them a relatively simple path into the United States. Congress must address the fact that family units continue to make the perilous journey to the United States and exploit legal gaps to gain entry.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data cited in this blog can be found in the Center's Immigration Data Portal: