Breaking Down the Immigration Figures

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Encounters on the southern border of those trying to enter the U.S. without authorization have gone up significantly under President Joe Biden. Government statistics show that in the initial processing of millions of encounters, 2.5 million people have been released into the U.S. and 2.8 million have been removed or expelled.

Some Republicans, however, have misleadingly suggested the number released into the country since Biden took office is much higher.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, claimed last month that 8 million “have come in illegally” and “we have to send them back.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made the same claim in a GOP debate in January.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on “Fox News Sunday” on Feb. 11 that Biden had “allowed an invasion to occur at our border, almost 10 million migrants have crossed into our country.”

The same day on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said that, conservatively, “3.3 million people have been released into the country who arrived here illegally.” But he also claimed that Biden had a policy of releasing “virtually 85, 90% of any migrant that crossed the border,” a percentage that would translate to well more than 3.3 million.

Other Republicans have said 85% of migrants crossing illegally are being released, a figure that reportedly, according to the Border Patrol Union, was used by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in early January. The 85% figure is close to accurate for apprehensions by Border Patrol for one month — December — but statistics for other months or Biden’s time in office are much lower, as we’ll explain later.

DHS has released several spreadsheets of data on illegal immigration at the southern border. All of the figures in this story come from that data from the Office of Homeland Security Statistics, unless otherwise noted.

The statistics can be confusing, and a little messy. For one, the number of apprehensions at the border includes people who have tried to cross more than once. In fiscal year 2021, the recidivism rate was 27%, according to the most recent figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s up from just 7% in fiscal 2019, which was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, the U.S. used Title 42, a public health law, to immediately expel border-crossers, but without any criminal consequences — a policy that likely incentivized repeated attempts to enter the country. Biden stopped the use of Title 42 in May, when the federal public health emergency for COVID-19 ended. And since then, the recidivism rate has dropped; it was 11% in August, according to CBP.

Another issue with the DHS data is that immigration cases can take years to make their way through court backlogs. The figures on what happens when migrants have come to the border reflect the initial dispositions, as DHS calls them. In many cases, the final decision on whether a migrant will be allowed to stay or will be deported comes later. The information “does not necessarily reflect final dispositions or removals in all cases,” U.S. Border Patrol says on its website.

“This idea of how many people have been released into the country, how many people have been removed – it’s hard to know for sure, because these are initial dispositions,” Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that researches immigration issues, told us. Many people haven’t had their day in immigration court, she said, so the ultimate results won’t be known until their cases are decided.

Comprehensive figures are available through October. So to keep things as simple as possible, we’ll present numbers for February 2021, the month after Biden took office, through October, unless otherwise noted.

The DHS data show 6.5 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in that time frame, a figure that includes both the 5.8 million apprehensions between legal ports of entry – the number typically used for illegal immigration – and a little more than 700,000 migrants who arrived at ports of entry without authorization to enter the U.S.

Of those 6.5 million encounters by CBP, 2.5 million people have been released into the U.S. with notices to appear in immigration court or report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the future, or other classifications, such as parole.

There are certainly others who have crossed the border by evading the authorities. DHS estimated there were 660,000 “gotaways,” or unlawful entries, in fiscal 2021. The agency would not provide an updated estimate. However, a DHS spokesperson told us: “Under this Administration, the estimated annual apprehension rate has averaged 78%, identical to the rate of the prior Administration.” That rate would support a gotaway figure of 1.6 million from February 2021 through October.

The 1.6 million figure would bring the number of those entering or released into the country to about 4.2 million.

The figures used by Haley, DeSantis and Cotton — 8 million or 10 million — are totals of all migrant encounters at the border plus gotaways, and, in Cotton’s case, encounters at the northern border, coastal borders and airports. Cotton’s press secretary, Patrick McCann, told us that those figures showed the senator was correct to say that number “crossed into the country.” But these claims ignore that DHS statistics show 2.8 million of the encounters at the southern border alone resulted in a removal or expulsion directly from CBP custody, and all of the rest of the migrants encountered are not simply released.

Most of those removals – nearly 2.5 million — were immediate expulsions under Title 42.

Total DHS repatriations through October amounted to 3.7 million, a figure that includes the 2.8 million removals directly from CBP, as well as removals by ICE. CBP operates at the border – at ports of entry and between them — while ICE “is responsible for interior enforcement and for detention and removal operations,” DHS explains.

“The majority of all individuals encountered at the southwest border over the past three years have been removed, returned, or expelled,” a DHS official told us. The total DHS repatriations of 3.7 million would support that. The figure is 57% of the 6.5 million total encounters. The one caveat is that the total repatriations could include some migrants who were apprehended crossing the border some time ago and later were arrested and removed by ICE.

We’ll explain what happens when migrants arrive at the border and provide more information on these statistics.

The Border Process

We reached out to the Migration Policy Institute to ask what happens to migrants who arrive at the southern border without authorization to enter the U.S. “The short answer is, it depends,” Putzel-Kavanaugh told us.

We’ll start with migrants apprehended while trying to cross between ports of entry.

In the last several years, Putzel-Kavanaugh said, typically migrants will go into U.S. territory and then wait to be apprehended, with the intention of asking for asylum. They are taken to a processing center – “large, tent-like structures” – for 24 to 72 hours to answer questions and provide biometric information.

“While in custody,” she said, “they’re processed, so to speak … the appropriate disposition will be given to them.” Migrants could be released with a notice to appear in immigration court, processed for expedited removal or asked if they want to be returned to Mexico.

For expedited removal, the U.S. would have to have a relationship with the migrant’s country of origin and space on a repatriation flight. ICE would need capacity to hold migrants pending removal.

In fiscal year 2023, 46% of encounters were migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that regularly accept repatriation of their citizens. Venezuelans made up 10.7% of encounters. The U.S. announced in October that Venezuela agreed to accept repatriations of its citizens, but in January, the country halted those flights.

For families, “Border Patrol doesn’t want to keep children in custody for very long,” Putzel-Kavanaugh said. Families are “likely to be released quickly with an NTA [notice to appear] to appear in immigration court.”

What happens for border crossers “depends on the day, depends on how many people Border Patrol is processing” and depends on the type of people coming in, such as whether they are traveling as a family. Criminal record checks are conducted, including screenings for prior immigration charges and whether someone is on a terrorist watchlist.

Glossary of Immigration Enforcement Terms

These definitions are from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Border Patrol.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection – An agency of the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for securing the homeland by preventing the illegal entry of people and goods while facilitating legitimate travel and trade.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – The principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s primary mission is to promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration.

U.S. Border Patrol – The mobile, uniformed law enforcement arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for securing U.S. borders between ports of entry.

Alternatives to Detention – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program using technology and other tools to manage unauthorized individual’s compliance with release conditions while they are on the non-detained docket.

Apprehension – The arrest of a potentially removable noncitizen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Asylee – An alien in the United States or at a port of entry who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, or to seek the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution or the fear thereof must be based on religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Encounters – The sum of U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) Title 8 apprehensions, Office of Field Operations (OFO) Title 8 inadmissibles, and noncitizens processed for expulsions under Title 42 authority by USBP or OFO.

Notice to Appear (NTA) – Form I-862, a document that is the first step in starting removal proceedings under Section 240 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The form identifies the grounds for removal under which the noncitizen is being charged and instructs them to appear before an immigration judge.

Notice to Report (NTR) – Form I-385, a document that directs an individual to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within 60 days for further immigration processing.

Parole – The discretionary decision that allows inadmissible aliens to leave an inspection facility freely so that, although they are not admitted to the United States, they are permitted to be physically present in the United States. Parole is granted on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.

Parole, humanitarian – Parole authorized for “urgent humanitarian reasons” as specified by law, regulation, or declaration by the U.S. government.

Port of entry (POE) – Any location in the United States or its territories that is designated as a port of entry (POE) for noncitizens and U.S. citizens.

Prosecutorial discretion – The legal authority to choose whether or not to take action against an individual for committing an offense.

Title 42 – Title 42 of the United States Code, which includes provisions related to public health. Border encounters processed under a March 2020 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) order pursuant to Title 42 are expelled from the United States as expeditiously as possible in the interest of U.S. public health to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Title 8 – Title 8 of the United States Code, which includes most provisions for immigration enforcement. Encounters processed under Title 8 authority may be subject to removal from the United States.

The process at legal ports of entry is different. Most migrants without authorization to enter the U.S. who are processed at ports of entry have appointments through CBP One — an app that in January 2023 began accepting appointments for a limited number of migrants who are in Mexico and want to request asylum or parole. DHS calls this “safer, humane, and more orderly” than processing between ports of entry, where migrants cross the border illegally and wait to be apprehended. Migrants with CBP One appointments get a similar screening and could be subject to expedited removal, but the majority are released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court, Putzel-Kavanaugh said.

With CBP One, border officers already have a lot of information about the person, including contact information and a photo. But appointments are capped at 1,450 per day. For calendar year 2023, 413,300 people scheduled such appointments, CBP says.

So, those who are released into the U.S. are generally saying they have a fear of returning to their home countries and want to apply for asylum, and releases are especially likely if it involves a family.

The capacity of Border Patrol and ICE facilities is also an issue, with detention reserved “for people who are really presenting a national security threat,” Putzel-Kavanaugh said.

There’s also a humanitarian parole program for people fleeing Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, who can potentially stay in the U.S. for two years if they have a sponsor who applies for the program. Through the end of last year, 327,000 people have been granted parole under the program, which launched in October 2022 for Venezuelans and expanded to the other nationalities in January 2023. There are 30,000 slots per month available.

Unaccompanied children are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for children who cross the border on their own.

“It’s this giant puzzle of different agencies … that have to work together,” Putzel-Kavanaugh told us.

For a visualization of the process, the American Immigration Council referred us to a New York Times infographic it helped the newspaper create on what happens to those coming to the border.

Those seeking asylum must prove “that they meet the definition of a refugee,” the American Immigration Council explains in a fact sheet updated in January. “In order to be granted asylum, an individual is required to provide evidence demonstrating either that they have suffered persecution on account of a protected ground in the past, and/or that they have a ‘well-founded fear’ of future persecution in their home country.”

Because of a backlog of cases, asylum seekers can spend years waiting for a court date. As we explained in a story last month, less than 15% of those seeking asylum were ultimately granted it in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, according to Justice Department statistics. But it is taking four to five years for asylum cases to get to court.

The immigration court backlog was 3 million cases in November, a record, according to a December report from TRAC, a nonpartisan research center at Syracuse University.

Border Statistics

As we said, there were 6.5 million encounters at the southern border from February 2021 through October, including a little more than 700,000 migrants who arrived without legal documentation at ports of entry. That’s according to DHS’ Office of Homeland Security Statistics.

About 2.5 million people through October have been released into the U.S. That figure includes 2 million released by Border Patrol, with a notice to appear in court or a notice to report to ICE, or released through prosecutorial discretion or granted parole, which allows people into the country for a temporary period. The 2.5 million number also includes nearly 534,000 paroles processed at legal ports of entry.

In addition to those releases, nearly 367,000 migrants have been transferred to HHS, which is responsible for children who cross the border on their own, unaccompanied by adult family members or legal guardians.

Another 771,000 were transferred to ICE, a figure that includes those subsequently booked into ICE custody, enrolled in “alternatives to detention” (which include technological monitoring and other case management options) or released by ICE.

Of those arriving at the southern border during Biden’s presidency, 2.8 million were removed or returned directly from CBP custody through October, the vast majority of them under the Title 42 public health law during the pandemic. Total DHS repatriations were 3.7 million, which includes removals by ICE.

Under Title 42, the U.S. immediately expelled people encountered at the border, except for unaccompanied children, without giving them an opportunity to apply for asylum — and without imposing criminal penalties. Now that Title 42 has ended, there are fewer expulsions overall, but the number removed from CBP custody under Title 8 has increased. Title 8 laws are the longstanding immigration laws that dictate what can happen to migrants entering illegally and who is inadmissible. Title 8 removals are subject to criminal penalties, including a five-year ban on entering the U.S. again.

In addition to fewer expulsions since the end of Title 42, there is evidence of a decline in the rate and number of gotaways, according to David J. Bier, the associate director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Since Title 42 was terminated, successful evasions of Border Patrol have declined 79 percent to a daily average of about 500, or 15,500 per month, in January 2024,” Bier wrote, using monthly estimates reported by media outlets.

The gotaway figures can be estimated through observation – such as electronic surveillance of the border – or statistical modeling. “Gotaway data have become more reliable over the past decade because border surveillance has increased dramatically from 2005 to 2023,” Bier wrote.

As we said, some Republicans have claimed that 85% of migrants are being allowed into the country under Biden, citing remarks attributed to DHS Secretary Mayorkas by the Border Patrol Union. (Publicly, Mayorkas said at the time that “the majority of all southwest border migrant encounters throughout this administration have been removed, returned, or expelled.”) But overall under Biden, through October, 35% of those apprehended at the border have been released to await further immigration processing.

Recent Customs and Border Protection figures of those trying to enter the country between ports of entry come close to that 85% number for December, when 77% of the nearly 250,000 apprehensions by Border Patrol were released with a notice to appear in court. But the monthly figures vary. In January, 57% were released with a notice to appear. From June, the first full month after Title 42 ended, through January, 64% of Border Patrol apprehensions were released.

Again, these initial dispositions don’t indicate what ultimately happens.

DHS also publishes lifecycle reports on what happens to migrants over time — since asylum cases and deportation proceedings can take years. The most recent report is for fiscal 2021, which covers less than a year of Biden’s time in office. The latest report shows that cases can be pending for quite some time. It says that 28% of all border encounters from fiscal 2013 to 2021 were still being processed.

Bier calculated release and removal rates for the last two years of former President Donald Trump’s term and the first 26 months of Biden’s, using DHS data, including the lifecycle report, ICE detention statistics and other figures published by the Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee. Bier wrote in November that his work showed the Biden administration “has removed a higher percentage of arrested border crossers in its first two years than the Trump DHS did over its last two years. Moreover, migrants were more likely to be released after a border arrest under President Trump than under President Biden.”

While the raw numbers are much higher under Biden — 5 million encounters compared with 1.4 million under Trump in those time frames — the percentages for the two administrations were similar: 47% removed under Trump and 51% under Biden. Bier’s estimates are for illegal immigration between ports of entry. (As our bar graph above shows, both administrations had removal rates above 50% when Title 42 was being used to expel people.)

“These numbers highlight how difficult it was even for the most determined administration in US history to expel everyone who enters illegally,” Bier wrote.


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3 responses to “Breaking Down the Immigration Figures”

  1. Reading this was the best part of my day, so informative and well-written.

  2. Your insights are enlightening.

  3. Your blog is a treasure trove of valuable insights and thought-provoking commentary. Your dedication to your craft is evident in every word you write. Keep up the fantastic work!

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