Tweets Misrepresent Border Data

As of July, there had been more than 1.3 million “encounters” at the southwest border in fiscal year 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. That does not mean that 1.3 million people crossed the border, nor does it mean that 1.3 million people tried to illegally enter the country.

That’s because the total figure for encounters includes some people who tried to enter the U.S. more than once during that time period. It also includes some people who attempted to enter the country legally through an official port of entry.

But there has been some confusion in the way the figures for encounters have been presented, including by some politicians who have been critical of how President Joe Biden’s administration has responded to a monthslong rise in illegal border migration.

“More than 1,000,000 illegal immigrants have crossed the border on Biden’s watch — in less than 7 months,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted on Aug. 12. “This is a CRISIS. The longer he and Democrats ignore it, the worse it gets.”

The Republican congressman’s office did not provide the source of his figure.

Of the more than 1.3 million southwest border encounters between October and July, according to CBP figures, about 1.1 million of them — including over 1 million encounters involving people who crossed the border illegally — occurred in or after January, the same month as Biden’s presidential inauguration.

That may be the data McCarthy used, but it does not really show what he claimed.

For his part, Biden in March dismissed the rising number of border encounters in the fall and winter as a seasonal uptick – but the numbers have continued to rise, including a sharp jump in July, despite extreme hot weather.

Border Encounters

We should start by noting that we don’t know the total number of people who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border at any time, which would include individuals who avoid detection by border officers. The federal government only reports statistics for the people actually encountered while trying to enter the country.

CBP’s figure for total encounters at the southwest border includes “apprehensions” and “expulsions” made by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is responsible for people who illegally cross the border. The total figure also includes expulsions and “inadmissibles” determined by CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which manages the over 300 legal U.S. ports of entry.

Apprehensions refers to individuals who entered the U.S. illegally and were later detained by border officials before adjudication. Inadmissibles are those seeking lawful entry “but are determined to be inadmissible,” CBP says, as well as those seeking “humanitarian protection,” such as refugee or asylum status, and “individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe.”

But, so far, the majority of the encounters in FY 2021 — which includes more than three and a half months before Biden took office — have been illegal border crossings that resulted in expulsions under Title 42 of the U.S. Code.

As we’ve explained, Title 42 is a public health law the Trump administration began invoking in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s administration continues to use the expulsion policy, except in the case of unaccompanied children and some families.

The expelled individuals, who have mostly been single adults, are immediately removed to the country of last transit or their home country.

Here’s CBP’s breakdown of the enforcement encounters for the current fiscal year:

Southwest Border Encounters

U.S. Border Patrol Office of Field Operations
Title 42 Expulsions Title 8 Apprehensions Total Title 42 Expulsions Title 8 Inadmissibles Total
Oct 63,006 6,043 69,049 1,901 994 2,895
Nov 61,285 7,884 69,169 1,942 1,002 2,944
Dec 60,596 10,546 71,142 1,747 1,106 2,853
Jan 62,530 12,788 75,318 1,775 1,324 3,099
Feb 72,319 25,323 97,642 1,947 1,509 3,456
Mar 107,248 61,974 169,222 2,003 2,058 4,061
Apr 110,843 62,858 173,701 1,751 3,345 5,096
May 111,465 61,160 172,625 1,902 6,042 7,944
Jun 103,049 75,500 178,549 1,893 8,492 10,385
Jul 93,781 105,996 199,777 2,007 10,888 12,895
FY21 TD 846,122 430,072 1,276,194 18,868 36,760 55,628
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Counting just the encounters between January and July, CBP recorded 674,513 expulsions — including 661,235 by the Border Patrol and 13,278 by the OFO — as well as 405,599 apprehensions and 33,658 inadmissibles.

But, importantly, CBP and policy analysts at immigration organizations have noted that each encounter does not always involve a different person trying to enter the country.

“The large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, which means that total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border,” the CBP said in its operational update for July.

CBP said “845,307 unique individuals have been encountered year-to-date during Fiscal Year 2021, compared to 796,400 during the same time period in Fiscal Year 2019.”

CBP told us it currently does not have breakdowns for each month, so we don’t know exactly how many unique border encounters there have been since Biden has been in office. But the more than 1 million encounters since January likely represents attempts by fewer than the 1 million people to enter the country without authorization.

And about 661,000 encounters — more than half of the over 1 million illegal crossings during that time — resulted in immediate expulsions.

Another Misused Figure 

There is a similar issue with an Aug. 12 tweet from Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, who claimed that “212,672 people illegally crossed the southern border in July alone.”

For that month, CBP said “there were 212,672 encounters along the Southwest Border, 27 percent of which involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average one-year re-encounter rate of 14 percent for Fiscal Years 2014-2019.”

The number of unique individuals encountered in July 2021 was 154,288, according to the CBP.

Furthermore, the 212,672 encounters in July did not include only people who tried to enter the U.S. illegally. Nearly 13,000 of those encounters involved people who tried to enter the U.S. lawfully through one of the official ports of entry but were expelled or deemed inadmissible.

‘Seasonal’ Increases?

Scalise’s tweet did make a valid point about monthly border crossings “speeding up” rather than “slowing down.” It appears the increases may no longer reflect just a seasonal uptick in the numbers, as the Biden administration suggested earlier this year.

“The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed,” Biden said in response to a question about the rise in border migration during a March 25 press conference. “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.”

The next day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated his point, saying: “So, the point is, we’ve dealt with this before. It is often seasonal. It is often cyclical.”

At the time of their remarks, total southwest border encounters had increased for 11 straight months, starting in May 2020. But, as Biden and Psaki indicated, encounters — specifically apprehensions — have historically gone up during the cooler winter months and then declined during the hotter summer months, when the extreme heat can be deadly for migrants.

So far, that typical pattern hasn’t continued this year. Apprehensions and expulsions by the Border Patrol continued to go up in April, May, June and July — and, with two months to go in the fiscal year, are approaching the recorded high of 1,643,679 apprehensions in FY 2000.

But even if that total is eclipsed this fiscal year, it’s important to remember that each border encounter — whether it is an apprehension, expulsion or inadmissible — is not always a different person coming across the border each time.

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