Border Patrol made 405,036 apprehensions of approximately 324,029 unique individuals in the 2020 fiscal year, down from 859,501 apprehensions of approximately 799,336 unique individuals in 2019. In 2020, Border Patrol arrested 2,438 criminal aliens convicted of 3,150 crimes. Of those 3,150 convictions, 40 percent were for immigration offenses while the remainder were for more serious crimes. Thus, approximately 1,463 of the 2,438 criminal aliens arrested for Border Patrol had committed non‐immigration crimes. Of the 324,029 unique individuals apprehended by Border Patrol, the 1,463 criminal aliens with non‐immigration crimes accounted for about 0.45 percent of all aliens apprehended by Border Patrol in 2020. In other words, less than one‐half of one percent of the illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol had committed non‐immigration crimes and about 0.75 percent had committed a crime including immigration crimes (Figure 1).
Criminal aliens apprehended as a percent of all apprehended illegal immigrants are up slightly in 2020 because the number of all people apprehended has roughly halved in the last year, but the total number of criminals apprehended is the lowest recorded. The number of criminal aliens apprehended is 43 percent lower than in 2019 and 87 percent lower than in 2015. In 2015, each Border Patrol agent apprehended one criminal alien on average. In 2020, only 1 in 8 Border Patrol agents apprehended a criminal alien on average. Either criminal aliens found a way to cross the border undetected, which is unlikely, or many fewer are coming.
By comparison, about 8 percent of the U.S. adult population had been convicted of a felony. Although it’s not an apples‐to‐apples comparison as the U.S. adult felony conviction rate includes immigrants who have a lower criminal incarceration and conviction rate, we can confidently estimate that native‐born Americans have a rate of felony conviction about 10 times higher than that of illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol in 2020.
In 2020, convictions for driving under the influence accounted for about 12 percent of the convictions , drug crimes accounted for 12 percent, 7 percent for assault, battery, or domestic violence, 5 percent for property crimes, 5 percent for sexual offenses, 2 percent for weapons charges, 18 percent for other crimes, and 0.1 percent for homicide and manslaughter (Table 1).
The difference above between the number of apprehensions and individuals apprehended is due to the recidivism rate. Many illegal immigrants get caught, are returned or removed from the United States, and try again. That recidivism rate has trended downward over time because the government imposed harsher penalties on illegal border crossers. However, the government has been quickly returning illegal immigrants apprehended along the border without consequences since March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the recidivism rate has shot up in 2020 for the reasons I stated here.
How much has the recidivism rate shot up? It was 7 percent in 2019 and 20 percent for the entire 2020 fiscal year. In September 2020, the recidivism rate was a shocking 37 percent.
Nick Miroff of the Washington Post wrote an excellent piece about the skyrocketing recidivism rate wherein he quotes Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott as saying: “We’re returning people very, very quickly, but our ability and willingness, if you will, to prosecute people, to have a consequence to the illegal activity of crossing the border, has been reduced.” Most of those being apprehended are single Mexican adults, a dramatic turnaround from 2019 when only 20 percent were Mexicans.
Returning illegal border crossers immediately combined with other restrictions on asylum and Mexican enforcement policy may have dissuaded many Central Americans from trying to enter unlawfully or to seek asylum, but it has helped shift it back toward Mexicans. The Trump administration’s cancellation of H-2B visas for seasonal non‐agricultural work, primarily used by Mexicans, has likely also contributed to the surge of Mexicans.