The number of migrants encountered attempting to enter the United States illegally from Mexico rose in May, surpassing all previous records over the past century, an indication of the scale of the illegal immigration crisis at the border.
U.S. border officials intercepted 239,416 migrants attempting to enter the country illegally last month, the fourth consecutive monthly rise, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday evening.
In the first 16 full months of President Joe Biden’s term in office, federal law enforcement officials at the southern border have stopped noncitizens attempting to cross into the U.S. without permission 2.975 million times, including migrants denied admission at ports of entry, CBP data show.
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus predicted that the numbers will increase further this summer and warned migrants not to attempt the journey.
“As temperatures start to rise in the summer, human smugglers will continue to exploit vulnerable populations and recklessly endanger the lives of migrants for financial gain,” Magnus said in a statement issued Wednesday evening. “The terrain along the Southwest Border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving.”
Magnus maintained that pandemic protocols, which mandate all illegal immigrants be immediately turned away, were still in effect for adults and families “where appropriate.” However, just 42% of the 239,416 figure were turned away under the Title 42 policy, a sharp decline from the Trump administration when 84% were expelled in the final three months of his presidency.
Of the total encounters, 222,656 illegally crossed and were apprehended by the Border Patrol, and 16,760 were found not to have the proper documents to enter at ports of entry, though the large majority of the latter category were released into the U.S.
In April, more than 21,000 Ukrainians sought admission at the southern border but lacked permission to enter. That number dropped by roughly two-thirds to 7,200 in May.
The vast majority of all encounters were single adults: 165,000. Nearly 60,000 people arrived with a family member, and just shy of 15,000 children showed up alone.
The 239,416 figure is the highest on record, outpacing 220,063 at the southern border in March 2000 and the previous record of 234,088 in April, federal data show. CBP does not list monthly data predating 2000, when it only tracked Border Patrol arrests of illegal immigrants, whereas today’s number includes illegal crossings, as well as those who were deemed ineligible for admission at the ports. Nevertheless, the figures from 2000 are likely the highest monthly numbers since the Border Patrol was formed in 1924.
The number of encounters has increased by nearly 75,000 from February’s 165,000 as news spread that the Biden administration would stop immediately returning illegal immigrants to Mexico and other countries in the coming months. The administration announced on April 1 that it would end Title 42. The policy was set to expire May 23, though a federal judge has barred the Biden administration from doing so.
Of the Border Patrol’s nine regions along the 2,000-mile southern border, data show that more than half of all illegal immigrants intercepted in May were in Texas-based sectors. The Gulf Coast-adjacent Rio Grande Valley in South Texas reported 45,909 encounters, followed by 44,388 in Del Rio, 34,638 in El Paso, and 33,326 in Yuma.
The number of people encountered at the southern border each month has fluctuated for years. Monthly encounters initially dropped to 20,000 in the first full month of U.S. pandemic lockdowns in April 2020. Illegal crossing attempts from Mexico began to rise as the Border Patrol turned away migrants under pandemic restrictions rather than referring them for prosecution and placing them in removal proceedings. The 20,000 figure rose to 71,000 by December 2020.
When Biden took office in January 2021, his administration stopped turning away children who showed up alone at the border, as had been protocol under Trump. In that time, more children have arrived at the southern border than at any other time in U.S. history.
Biden also attempted to halt deportations for 100 days, suspended hundreds of miles of border wall construction projects, and vowed to rescind initiatives that turned away asylum-seekers at the nation’s borders, moves that sent a signal to the world that likely prompted many to travel to the U.S. In addition, the pandemic has had the harshest economic effect on Latin American nations, leading more people to flee to the U.S. and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Migrant encounters quickly rose in 2021, topping 169,000 that March as Biden rescinded Trump-era border policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols that had forced migrants to live in Mexico while asylum cases were processed in U.S. courts.
Biden initially downplayed the uptick in illegal migration last spring as “seasonal.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas rolled out a four-pronged plan at the time to stem the flow of migrants illegally entering the country. The plan included addressing the root causes that lead people to leave their home countries, rebuilding the asylum process, improving border security management, and taking down smugglers. To date, the Biden administration has not seen the desired effects of its plan.
The numbers continued to spike through last summer. Encounters topped 210,000 in July and 195,000 in August before dropping through the fall and winter months but have begun to climb, now blowing past last year’s summer levels.
The situation at the southern border, already a humanitarian and national security crisis, threatens to become far worse in the weeks ahead as DHS has predicted as many as 18,000 people being taken into custody each day once Title 42 ends. At present, border officials are encountering 8,000 people daily, a far cry from the “1,000” figure that the Obama administration once said constituted a crisis.
The extent of illegal immigration is not fully known because federal data only track those who were intercepted and cannot account for people who were not detected or evaded arrest. Because Border Patrol agents have been pulled from the border to transport and process those arriving, areas of the border have been left unmanned.