Most migrants cross at the Texas border. Here’s how the flow of people intersected with Trump’s policies.

Editor’s note: As of March 2021, we will no longer update this story, which was designed to track migration policies and people crossing the border during the Trump administration. The Tribune continues to cover immigration and its impact on Texans, and the data in this tracker is published by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. For the latest on migration policies under President Joe Biden, follow reporter Julián Aguilar.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration introduced controversial policies like “zero tolerance” and the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as “remain in Mexico”, to curb migration at the Southwest border. When Trump first took office in 2017, migrant apprehensions at the border dipped — then began rising again, followed by a large spike in the first few months of 2019. A steep decline began in May 2019 as new policies took hold.

In March 2020, in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Trump issued an executive order that immediately returns individuals apprehended or deemed inadmissible to the countries they arrived from. The order’s initial deterrent effects eventually wore off — in the border sectors located in Texas, apprehensions rose steadily from May until January.

The Trump administration rushed to finalize several immigration policy changes before Trump left office, including an order limiting the circumstances under which people can qualify for asylum.

Texas has five of the nine Southwest border sectors, which are regions that CBP uses to count apprehensions. (Texas’ El Paso sector also covers all of New Mexico.) And most apprehensions occur at the Texas-Mexico border. Here’s how many migrants were apprehended there in January.

Here's where people were apprehended after crossing into Texas

In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 36,302 migrants in Texas sectors, accounting for 48.3% of all apprehensions at the Southwest border.

NEW MEXICO

E

l

P

a

s

o

TEXAS

El Paso

10,615

apprehensions

BORDER PATROL SECTORS

Big Bend

A

u

s

t

i

n

2,669

BIG BEND

NATIONAL

PARK

S

a

n

A

n

t

o

n

i

o

Del Rio

11,073

MEXICO

Laredo

gulf OF

mexico

8,631

Rio Grande

50 miles

17,056

B

r

o

w

n

s

v

i

l

l

e

Note: These numbers do not include inadmissibles, who are people presenting themselves at ports of entry. The El Paso sector includes all of New Mexico.

gulf OF mexico

TEXAS

B

r

o

w

n

s

v

i

l

l

e

Rio Grande

17,056

S

a

n

A

n

t

o

n

i

o

BORDER

PATROL

SECTORS

Laredo

8,631

Del Rio

11,073

apprehensions

BIG BEND

NATIONAL

PARK

MEXICO

Big Bend

2,669

El Paso

10,615

E

l

P

a

s

o

50 miles

NEW MEXICO

Note: These numbers do not include inadmissibles, who are people presenting themselves at ports of entry. The El Paso sector includes all of New Mexico.

Of those, 17,056 apprehensions were in the Rio Grande sector, an increase of 163.3% in this area from January 2020. CBP apprehended 75,198 migrants across the entire Southwest border in January — that means about one out of every four migrants entering the U.S. at the border comes through the Rio Grande sector.

These totals count those who try to cross the border between ports of entry and are detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Officials don’t measure people who crossed but were not caught.

CBP has records of apprehensions by month since 1999. Here’s how January’s apprehension levels compare with those of earlier administrations.

Apprehensions soared during the Clinton and Bush administrations but fell under Obama

Since 1999, the highest number of apprehensions recorded was in March 2000 during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when 220,063 migrants were apprehended. The surge in apprehensions in the summer of 2019 was much smaller, but it came close to spikes during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In 2008, Bush signed a trafficking victims protection law that prevents unaccompanied minors who are not from Mexico or Canada from being sent back to their countries of origin. This law played a role during the surges of children and families in 2014 under Obama by preventing them from being immediately deported.

During Obama's presidency, crop failure, drought and soaring murder rates drove thousands of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S.

“There are certain things that do seem to be linked. For example, droughts — especially when they are recurring and cause widespread food insecurity or spikes in violence,” said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some of those things are going to have pretty dramatic effects quickly.”

Metering, which limits the number of migrants allowed to enter the U.S. through official ports of entry each day, was also implemented for the first time under Obama in 2016. It was institutionalized in the summer of 2018 under Trump.

The same factors still push migrants north today. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, 539,500 Central Americans are expected to be displaced by the end of 2019, in large part due to gang violence.

Families crossed at unprecedented levels during Trump’s presidency

Historically, most migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have been single adults. But in May 2019, crossings by families that say they were driven north by gang violence reached record levels.

There has also been a small but steady increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied minors. Thousands of these children end up in shelters; in December 2018, more than 8,000 children were held in Texas’ state-licensed shelters.

Human smugglers have contributed to the rise in families and children by offering discounted fees to adults who travel with children. Smugglers can drop them at the border and instruct them to claim asylum rather than guiding them across and trying to evade Border Patrol.

CBP reports asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry as inadmissibles, a category separate from apprehensions. Due to metering, they can wait for months in Mexico, and some choose to cross the border illegally to claim asylum.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has attempted to slow the flow of migrants with a flurry of new policies that have often created confusion and chaos at the border — and sparked multiple lawsuits.

"What you have is an inability in Congress to agree on a broader vision of what immigration should look like in the United States," Leutert said. "And so you have presidents like Obama, or like Trump right now, creating policies that are executive actions or regulations, that are piecemeal.”

By focusing exclusively on the border, she added, “you're addressing symptoms, because all of the challenges at the border are coming from much broader, structural issues."

Unaccompanied minors
+
Family units
+
Single adults
=
Total apprehensions and inadmissibles

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Clarification: This story stated that the El Paso, Rio Grande, and Del Rio sectors and the El Paso, Rio Grande, and Laredo sectors saw the largest increases in apprehensions in June and in July, respectively, compared to May's numbers. These sectors saw the largest raw increases out of Texas' border sectors, not all Southwest border sectors.