The latest statistics on southern border apprehensions from CBP present a mixed picture. The bad news: Border Patrol apprehensions, which had cratered in April at 16,162 with the implementation of public-health restrictions on entry in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are creeping up again, reaching 38,347 by July.
The good news: The number of aliens apprehended entering illegally this year is still lower than last year, and the change in demographics of those apprehended has shifted from families and children to single adults, freeing the Border Patrol to focus on its other primary missions: preventing drugs and those posing a danger to this country from entering communities within the United States.
In contrast to last month’s numbers, a year before, the Border Patrol caught 71,978 migrants entering the United States illegally, just 33% of whom (23,881) were single adults. The rest were either adults traveling with children (family units or “FMU”) or unaccompanied alien children (UAC). The majority (42,543 or 59%) were FMU. These numbers were actually down from a year’s-long high two months earlier: 132,856 apprehensions in May 2019, of whom 63% were FMU, and just under 28% were single adults.
Before 2011, 90% of Border Patrol apprehensions were single adult males, and Customs and Border Protection detention and processing facilities were largely built in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate those migrants.
Why the change between 2011 and 2018? Democratic-sponsored legislation in 2008 mandated the release of UACs from Department of Homeland Security custody within 48 hours, encouraging parents in the United States to have their children smuggled to the United States and boosting UAC numbers. Incredibly, some 78.7% of all UACs released between July 2018 and January 2019 went to sponsors themselves illegally present in the United States.
And, as a 2019 bipartisan panel report found, a 2017 court decision expanding the 1997 consent decree in Flores v. Reno (governing detention conditions for alien minors) to cover UAC and migrant children traveling with adults — and requiring their release within 20 days — (perversely) encouraged aliens making the perilous trip to the United States illegally to bring a child along with them, to gain release.
Because CBP’s facilities were not built to hold families, most of them were quickly released (encouraging even more FMU to enter). But before that could happen, Border Patrol had to process them — leading to images of “kids in cages” at the border, which were reported extensively last year. That the Obama administration had built those “cages” — in reality, dividers to protect younger migrants from older ones — to begin with was largely overlooked, though even Snopes admitted that to be the case.
Because of this surge in families and children, 50% to 60% of Border Patrol agents were pulled off the line to feed and care for those migrants, take them for medical treatment, and even change children’s diapers.
This adversely affected the component’s other missions. Border Patrol seizures of marijuana and the deadly drug fentanyl dropped between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 — by 43% and 42%, respectively. While other drug seizures (cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine) increased, this likely reflected the fact that smugglers were exploiting the weaknesses at the border to move even more drugs. There is no way to estimate how many narcotics were not seized, but it was likely significant.
As noted, the demographics of migrants apprehended at the southern border have shifted back to more traditional patterns. Last month, 88.5% of Border Patrol apprehensions were single adult migrants, as were almost 91% in June.
This has freed up agents to perform their traditional functions, including and especially drug seizures. Ten months into the fiscal year (83.3% of the way to fiscal 2021), cocaine seizures are almost 96% of what they were in all of fiscal 2019, methamphetamine seizures 87.5% and (most significantly) fentanyl seizures are already at 198% of what they were in fiscal 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in March that fentanyl — 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — drove the increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids from 2017 to 2018 (when 31,335 overdose deaths occurred). Two to three milligrams of the drug are a lethal dose, meaning that the 448 pounds of fentanyl seized by Border Patrol this fiscal year could have killed 67,736,405 Americans — at a minimum — had it reached the streets.
In addition, Border Patrol’s seizures of currency — which fuels illicit drug activity — is already 10% higher this year than it was in all of fiscal 2019.
Lower numbers of aliens entering illegally — and especially fewer children and adults traveling with children — is freeing up Border Patrol agents to focus on their core mission of protecting the American people in the interior of the United States. We are all safer for their efforts.
• Andrew Arthur is resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
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