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Border Looks Identical to 2019 Without Repeat Crossers

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David J. Bier

The number of arrests at the border in February reached the highest level in any February in 15 years, and the government is projecting the highest number of arrests in 20 years. The reason that arrests have reached such a high level is that since March, the vast majority of crossers are immediately expelled to Mexico under authority in Title 42 of the U.S. code. Once sent back to Mexico, the expelled can promptly recross. Without these repeat crossers, the first few months of fiscal year 2021 would look nearly identical to fiscal year 2019 before the pandemic.

Figure 1 graphs total arrests and arrests of newly arriving border crossers—that is, the number of arrests without “recidivists.” Border Patrol labels a crosser a recidivist if they had an arrest in the prior year. The monthly rates for 2018 and 2019 come from data that I received through a Freedom of Information Act request. The rates for FY 2020 and 2021 are partial estimates, but they are likely very close to accurate.

CBP announced that the rate of recidivism for the entire period from March 20, 2020 (when the expulsions began) to February 4, 2020 was 38 percent, and one news story reported that the rate for September 2020 was 37 percent. Since about 85 percent of recidivists are “single adults” (adult crossers without their children), the number of single adults was used to estimate the precise recidivism rate for each month.

Figure 2 compares the trend in new arrivals for the end of FY 2020 and start of FY 2021 to the end of FY 2018 and start of FY 2019. As it shows, the pattern and levels of new arriving border crossers are practically identical in both years. In February 2021, there were about 66,800 newly arriving border crossers compared to 62,500. Even this slight difference can be explained by the fact that the Biden administration is admitting about 6,000 fewer undocumented asylum seekers at ports of entry.

Figure 3 compares the estimated recidivism rate to the “expulsion rate,” which includes all official forced returns to Mexico including under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). It doesn’t include the number of people refused admission at ports of entry. As it shows, the recidivism rate initially began to spike after the implementation of “Remain in Mexico” under MPP at the end of fiscal year 2019. The only difference between MPP and Title 42 “expulsions” is that MPPers received a court date, but the immediacy of their return to dangerous cities in Mexico was the same.

The last month for which I have complete data is September 2019, and it showed a 16.1 percent recidivism rate up from 5.7 percent in May 2019. During that time, the “expulsion rate” climbed from 4 percent to 18 percent. Based on the share of single adult crossers, the recidivism rate likely continued to climb until March when Title 42 “expulsions” began. It stayed around 40 percent from April to January, likely falling in February when more families and unaccompanied kids crossed, and many were released.

The fact that Title 42 has so significantly increased illegal traffic along the border should argue for the administration ending it. The basis of the order is phony public health arguments that the Centers for Disease Control experts rejected in March, but were overruled by the Trump White House. Now that it is clear that Title 42 has caused agents to interact with more crossers than they would otherwise have to, its whole fraudulent premise evaporates. It is impossible for the administration to defend a policy as protective of its agents when it has put them at greater risk. The government should immediately rescind the Title 42 order and restore the legal process for seeking asylum at ports of entry.


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