The deaths of two children in custody in recent weeks have led to a justifiable focus on the numbers of children who enter Border Patrol custody every year. The Department of Homeland Security told Congress this week that “more children and families are being apprehended between the ports of entry than ever before.” While the large numbers of children are certainly alarming, it is incorrect that it is the largest number ever. President Bush’s administration apprehended more children with far fewer resources.
Figure 1 shows the number of children who Border Patrol apprehended from Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 to 2018. In FY 2005, Border Patrol brought into their custody 114,222 people under the age of 18. The number of minors proceeded to nosedive, bottoming out 23,089 in FY 2011, before rising again to 107,613 in FY 2014. Under President Trump, the agency arrested 82,769 in FY 2017 and about 109,000 in FY 2018, which is still below the peak.
Moreover, as Figure 1 also shows, Border Patrol made those apprehensions in the early 2000s with a far smaller force than under Presidents Obama or Trump. That means that President Bush had fewer resources to deal with the issue. Three times under President Bush, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 10 children per year. Under President Trump, the average Border Patrol agent has brought in 32 percent fewer children per year as under President Bush (Figure 2). This is greater than the average for President Obama’s presidency, but still far from the most ever.
What has changed in recent years is the share of apprehensions who were juveniles. As Figure 3 shows, the number of children largely moved in tandem with the number of adults prior to FY 2014, but after FY 2014, the number of children returned to the early 2000s norm, while the number of adults remained low. From FY 2001 to 2013, 9 percent of apprehensions were minors—since FY 2014, they were 24 percent of apprehensions.
The shift to a more child-heavy flow with lower overall numbers coincided with a substantial decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, and an increase in arrivals from non-Mexican countries, 90 percent of whom were from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
From the standpoint of the Trump administration, Central American children are much more difficult to deal with for several reasons. If deported, they need to be flown back to Central America, which takes more time and resources than simply putting children back in Mexico. Unaccompanied children from Mexico are afforded fewer protections and can be deported without a process to protect them, while Central American unaccompanied minors cannot are subject to procedures intended to make sure that, if they were trafficked, fled persecution, or were abandoned, they receive protection in America.
From a security perspective, however, the shift to a majority child-family flow is a blessing because children and families overwhelmingly turn themselves in to Border Patrol rather than attempt to sneak into the country. According to a DHS-commissioned report last year, nearly all families and children turn themselves in rather than seek to evade detection. This allows the U.S. government the opportunity to check them for diseases and conduct background checks.
In the period between 2005 and 2014, the government constructed hundreds of miles of fences near urban areas, which has led to an influx of migrants in remote areas of the border. This increased the risks to child migrants trying to cross and turn themselves in for asylum, and it contributed to the deaths of the two children who ended up in Border Patrol custody. The Trump administration has aggravated this problem by institutionalizing a practice of turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry and firing tear gas at people who try to scale the fence to let themselves be caught.
The point is not that there is not a real humanitarian crisis at the border, but it is one primarily driven by government policies, not the unprecedented number of children.
This post was updated 1/11/2019 with an improved estimate of children who came in FY 2018 to account for the fact that unaccompanied children didn't track total children in FY 2018 for the first time. The update accounts for the increase in family units, which include children. This increases the estimated number of children from about 85,000 to 109,000. Thanks to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick for improving the methodology.