With the deadline looming for Congress to approve funds to keep the lights on at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the nation’s border protection forces, new data released under the Freedom of Information Act by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows that there has been a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of unauthorized migrants who have managed to elude capture by U.S. border agents. These numbers are especially pronounced in the U.S. Border Patrol’s (USBP) Rio Grande Valley Sector, a region that has also seen a recent surge in the numbers of migrants who have died during their attempts to enter the United States.
Data published by CBP in December 2014 showed that the total number of apprehensions of unauthorized migrants along the southwestern border increased by 46.3 percent between FY2011 and FY2014. But the data made public by CBP did not include figures indicating that there has been an even more dramatic increase in the number of border-crossers who have evaded apprehension after being spotted trying to enter the United States from Mexico. The number of so-called “gotaways” increased by 100 percent from FY2011 to FY2013, according to the new data (see figure 1). The number of migrants who “turned back” also increased nearly 30 percent during this time period, from 120,986 in FY2011 to 156,433 in FY2013. [Figures for 2011 are taken from a December 2012 report from the U.S. General Accountability Office (pp. 74-82). These metrics are not yet available for FY2014.]
The new numbers expose what’s at stake in the political crisis that has put DHS funding in imminent jeopardy. Congressional Republicans have refused to authorize funds to keep DHS, CBP, USBP and other domestic security agencies operating after the Friday deadline unless the bill includes provisions rolling back President Barack Obama’s executive orders that would, among other things, expand access to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, under which certain undocumented individuals who arrived before the age of 16 are exempt from deportation. Last week, a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary injunction blocking Obama’s executive action, which would allow an estimated five million additional migrants to remain in the U.S.
Experts have attributed much of the reported growth in apprehensions at the border with Mexico to an increase in unauthorized migration flows from Central America stemming from political instability and violence. For instance, apprehensions of “Other than Mexicans” along the southwestern border increased nearly 600 percent, from 46,997 in FY2011 to 327,577 in FY2014. In FY2014, non-Mexicans accounted for 52.7 percent of southwestern apprehensions, compared to 14.3 percent in FY2011. Despite the increases in apprehensions, “gotaways,” and “turnbacks” over the last few years, the number of border-wide apprehensions remains near 40-year lows, as noted by analysts at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Most of the recent increases across all three categories have occurred in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector (RGV), the easternmost zone of the southwestern border that includes the city of McAllen, Texas. The number of “gotaways” in RGV increased by more than 187 percent, according to the new figures—from 35,759 in FY2011 to 102,763 in FY2013 (see figure 2). “Turnbacks” increased from 27,418 in FY2011 to 69,815 in FY2013, which corresponds with nearly a 155 percent increase.
These increases are particularly concerning given the recent surge in migrant deaths in South Texas compared to just five years ago. The surge in the numbers of border-crossers not apprehended by U.S. authorities in this sector suggests the likelihood that RGV will continue to experience some of the highest rates of migrant deaths across the border.
RGV is not only the most heavily traversed sector along the border, but also the most frequently crossed corridor for unauthorized migrants from Central America due to its geographical proximity to the region. Approximately 75 percent of the 256,393 people apprehended there in FY2014 were non-Mexican. The increase in apprehensions, “gotaways,” and “turnbacks” in RGV corresponds with the dramatic increase in the number of unauthorized, unaccompanied children from Central America attempting to cross the border, widely-reported in the summer of 2014.
The most recent figures from CBP show an almost 40 percent drop in apprehensions of unaccompanied minors along the southwest border in fiscal year 2015 compared with the same period last year, and a 44 percent drop in RGV specifically. But it remains unclear whether the reported drop in apprehensions over the first months of FY2015 corresponds with similar decreases in “turnbacks” and “gotaways”—which would indicate a lower overall level of unaccompanied minor border crossing attempts—or whether those categories have continued to increase even as apprehensions have lagged. Lacking these data, we are left with only part of the story.
Although RGV is now the border region seeing the highest numbers of unauthorized migrants, this has not always been the case. A series of border enforcement efforts in the early-to-mid 1990s redistributed migration flows away from traditional urban crossing points such as San Diego, CA, and El Paso, TX, and into remote, desolate areas of southern Arizona. Between FY1998 and FY2012, the Tucson Sectors recorded more apprehensions than any other sector along the border. However, that distinction now belongs to RGV, as migration flows have once again shifted east, and it appears that apprehensions, “gotaways”, and “turnbacks” (figure 2) are again on the rise in what has been the deadliest region along the U.S.-Mexican border for more than a decade.