Decades ago, the vast majority of immigrants who attempted to cross the border between ports of entry were from Mexico. A few years ago, most of them came from the Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But now, according to Border Patrol statistics, the number of people coming from outside of those places is increasing — and fast.
To better understand this trend, CNN delved into the data. Here’s a look at what we’re seeing, why this change is so important, why it’s happening, what this looks like on Earth and what could happen next.
What we see: There is a big change in who comes to the US-Mexico border. A large number of immigrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle still make the journey. But the number of immigrants from other countries, represented here in purple, has increased significantly.
Back in 2007, the number of immigrants in this “other” category was negligible. But since then, it has grown exponentially – 11,000% – with the largest increase in just the past two years.
US Border Patrol encounters still show more migrants from Mexico trying to cross the southwestern border in July than any other country. But so far this fiscal year, for the first time, encounters with immigrants from outside Mexico and the Northern Triangle outnumber those from either of those regions.
A handful of countries make up a large part of this growing group on the border. The number of times US Border Patrol officials at the southwestern border encountered migrants from Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela has increased dramatically over the past two years.
One word of caution about the numbers: For this analysis, we used US Customs and Border Protection statistics on Border Patrol encounters—which include migrants who are caught and detained, at least temporarily, at the border, and migrants who are promptly expelled to their countries of origin and Mexico. This data gives us the best overall picture of who is arriving and what is happening at the border.
This is a problem that mostly affects immigrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, who are more likely to be subject to Title 42 restrictions than immigrants from other countries.
Why is this important: Increasing additional nationalities at the border “makes border enforcement more complex,” says Doris Meissner, who directs U.S. immigration policy work at the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Institute in Washington.
“These populations … require different types of responses,” Meisner says. “We have not established an asylum system that in any way rises to the challenge of this change.”
But Pierre says officials are not doing enough.
“The Biden administration cannot respond to this new reality with the same old playbook,” he said on Twitter. That’s exactly what the administration appears to be doing, he told CNN. “It’s a lot of the same types of responses,” he says.
Why does this happen: Beer says there is no simple reason for this to happen.
“There are many answers, and there are countries represented in that group,” he says.
Meissner, who served as Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization from 1993 to 2000, says the pandemic has played a key role by intensifying economic pressures.
Deteriorating economic conditions, food shortages, and limited access to health care are increasingly driving Venezuelans to leave, Meissner says, and the growing Venezuelan community in the United States is an attraction.
For Colombians and Nicaraguans, economic instability — exacerbated by the pandemic — has been the main driver of migration, she says, but politics also plays a role.
She says that those who previously saw neighboring Costa Rica as a destination, are likely to look elsewhere because of the lower job opportunities there.
Messner says Colombia’s high rates of inflation and unemployment are fueling more immigration. It says social unrest after a wave of protests in 2021 and political divisions that intensified during the last presidential election are also likely to affect immigrants’ decisions.
How does this look on the ground: This is not just something we can see with statistics. Both immigrants and border guards officials say they are noticing the shift.
“The countries we are receiving now – those nationalities are traveling inland and reaching the borders, they have to be addressed and there are a lot of them which is a challenge to the workforce,” he said.
She said one of the rooms was full of Cubans. Another was full of people from different countries.
“There were Colombians, Bangladeshis, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians,” she said. “I felt like the whole world was there.”
What could happen next: Like everything about borders, there is a lot of debate about what officials should do about it.
Beer and Meisner say the changing makeup of immigrants at the border shows just how badly the US immigration system needs overhaul.
“Many, if not most, of these people are likely not eligible for asylum, despite having fled very difficult circumstances,” Meisner says. “We urgently need to get Congress to deal with immigration laws and make it possible for other legal pathways to get into the United States.”
She adds that countries across the Western Hemisphere need to work together and treat migration as a shared responsibility.
So far, there is no sign that this trend is slowing. Beer and Meisner say they don’t expect that.
“It’s quite reasonable to think that this could go on for many years, because we don’t have the infrastructure to drive people out as quickly as they come in,” says Pierre.
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