Search for:

History of the Border Surge

author Published by Jeremy Beck

Lat week, we highlighted “Joseph Chamie’s warning”that another surge at the border is imminent. We don’t know how this latest one will play out — which depends largely on how the next administration handles it — but we can look back over the last decade to get a good idea of what we might expect.

Here’s what we do know:

In 2011, the Obama administration issues new “prosecutorial discretion” directives that reduces deportations of non-criminals to “close to zero.”

In 2012, interior deportations decline for the third straight year. The Obama administration creates the DACA program via executive action. Obama runs for re-election on the promise to create a “path to citizenship” for roughly 11 million people who had entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. The number of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended at the border spike. Administration officials are warned of the brewing crisis, but worry that addressing it would distract from the re-election campaign and the push to get a “comprehensive” bill through Congress.

In 2013, Obama declares the surge at the border a “humanitarian crisis.” Deportations, including those of criminal aliens, decline for the fourth consecutive year. The Senate passes S. 744, a bill over 1,000 pages long that offers work authorization and legal status to millions but does not close the gaps in enforcement.

In 2014, deportations decline by another 20 percent over the previous year. Word spreads throughout Central America that migrants arriving with children are being released. The number of family units apprehended at the border quadruples. 70 percent of migrant “families” released into the interior fail to appear at their appointed times. The Obama administration launches an 11-week ad campaign in Central America urging families to not make the journey north. Vice President Biden refutes the idea that violence in Central America is driving the surge and instead blames smugglers for exploiting loopholes in the asylum and detention process. Smugglers agree. The Obama administration asks Mexico to deport Central Americans as they pass through on their way to the United States. The Obama administration builds new facilities at the border to detain families. A federal judge rules the administration must release children and their mothers (the administration appeals). President Obama announces the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program to grant an estimated 5 million unauthorized migrants deferred action and work permits.

In 2015, interior deportations decline for the 6th year in a row. The Government Accountability Office concludes that the debate over legalizing unauthorized migrants was “a primary cause” of the border surge. DAPA is temporarily halted by a federal judge. The Obama administration’s Priority Enforcement Program provides a “degree of protection” to “the vast majority of unuathorized immigrants” in the United States. Hillary Clinton promises to use executive actions “to go even further” than Obama to create a “citizenship path” for people in the U.S. illegally. Donald Trump announces his bid for president and makes cracking down on illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign. DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tells the National Border Patrol Council “We should not place someone in deportation proceedings, when the courts already have a 3-6 year backlog.” Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and family units decline for most of the year but spike in the final months.

In 2016, interior deportations decline for the 7th year in a row. The Ninth Circuit reaffirms that unaccompanied and accompanied minors must be released within 20 days, although adults traveling with them can be held for longer (setting the stage for “family separations”). Donald Trump wins the election. Unaccompanied minors and family units (including a small but surging number of migrants from around the globe) cross the border in record numbers, with most turning themselves in to Border Patrol knowing they will be released.

In 2017, interior deportations increase. Apprehensions at the border drop dramatically after Trump’s election (likely due to his rhetoric alone) but begin to rise again by May. Attorney General Jeff Sessions calls on Congress to pass asylum reforms. Sessions announces a wind down of DACA. On the same day, Trump tweets reassurances that he will make sure DACA recipients are allowed to remain.

In 2018, interior deportations increase again. National Border Patrol Council (NPBC) President Brandon Judd says “The ‘Trump Effect’ is now gone” due to Congress’ failure to enact “catch and release” reform. “Caravans” of asylum seekers approach the border and Congress blocks a Justice Department guidance on the “credible fear” standard. The Trump administration implements a policy to separate families – then rolls the policy back and asks Congress to pass legislation to permit the government to hold families together. Congress declines. Apprehensions of groups traveling with children surpass 100,000, shattering the previous record.

In 2019, the legal loopholes are widely known within the United States and without.

NBC News, March 1, 2019: “Undocumented immigrants are increasingly choosing to cross the U.S. border illegally rather than waiting in line to claim asylum at legal ports of entry…In January, U.S. officials finalized a deal with Mexico that forces asylum seekers who present themselves at the legal port of entry…Illegal crossers, meanwhile, do not have to wait in Mexico, even if they are caught.
The Washington Post, March 4, 2019: “U.S. court restrictions on the government’s ability to keep children in immigration jails – and the sheer volume of people arriving – have left Homeland Security agencies defaulting increasingly to the overflow model Trump deplores as ‘catch-and-release.’….Across rural Guatemala, Martinez said, word has spread that those who travel with a child can expect to be released from U.S. custody. Smugglers were offering two-for-one pricing, knowing they just needed to deliver clients to the border – not across it – for an easy surrender to U.S. agents….The problem, Homeland Security officials say, is that a growing portion of those who pass the initial screening never appear in court…Once released into the U.S. interior, some shed their monitoring bracelets and slip into the shadows to remain in the United States, a country where wages are 10 times higher than in Central America. The saturation at the border means that it matters little whether a parent’s story of persecution is sufficiently credible…”
The Washington Post, March 5, 2019:”An attractive job market in the United States is prompting more Central Americans to leave the poverty and insecurity of their home countries and head north, typically in groups of one parent and one child. Such pairings all but ensure the family will be processed quickly and released from U.S. custody in a matter of days.”
The New York Times, March 5, 2019:”Families with children can be held in detention for no longer than 20 days, under a much-debated court ruling, and since there are a limited number of detention centers certified to hold families, the practical effect is that most families are released into the country to await their hearings in immigration court. The courts are so backlogged that it could take months or years for cases to be decided. Some people never show up for court at all.”
The Washington Post, May 28, 2019: “Asylum-seeking migrants arriving dusty and exhausted here in recent days said it is easier than ever to enter the United States — if they surrender with a child.”

By October 2019, the Trump administration has

signed on to safe third country agreements with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, essentially preventing any individual from those three countries claiming asylum in the United States;
worked with Mexico to increase enforcement efforts on their side of the border; and
implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols that require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they await their asylum hearing, disincentivizing migrants from entering fraudulent asylum claims.

The numbers have ebbed and flowed, depending on the signals and policies put forth by the United States, but the border crisis that began late in Obama’s first term has not been resolved.

“With the incoming government’s proposed changes to immigration policies,” Chamie writes, “especially with respect to asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, migrating families and unaccompanied minors, a big migration inflow along the U.S. southern border should not come as a surprise.”

Many of Biden’s promises suggest he’s ready to take us back to 2014. He’s tapped DACA architect Alejandro Mayorkas to run DHS, and he’s promised to put a large-scale legalization bill on the table within the first 100 days. If the debate over legalization spurred the initial surge before the legal loopholes were well-known, what will happen now that the cat is out of the bag as far as how to game the system? I’m afraid Chamie is right about us finding out.

Wouldn’t it be something, though, if Biden shocked the world and charted a brand new course?

What if Biden oversees a restoration of the refugee and asylum systems by working with both parties in Congress to close the smugglers’ loopholes?

What if Biden builds that “big beautiful door” that Trump never got around to, and presides over an immigration system that welcomes more visitors than ever before while ensuring that people peacefully return when their visas expire?

And here’s a big one: what if Biden spoke to the American people and said “If you’re upset about what’s been going on at the border, I get it, but don’t blame someone for looking for a better life for themselves or their family. We Americans are the luckiest people on the face of the earth. Who can say what any of us would do in their shoes? If you want to be angry at someone, be angry at me, be angry with your government. We’ve known what this is all about. It’s about economic opportunity. That’s why people put their lives and the lives of their loved ones in the hands of smugglers and the cartels. Because those of us in your government have been looking the other way while employers snatch them up for low wages. We’ve known how to stop it for decades but we haven’t. It’s too good for business. Businesses say they can’t get anyone else to do the work. And too many of us accepted that because believe me it’s no fun going after business in America and we want them to succeed. But it’s got to be fair. Not just to those of us who get something out of the lower labor costs, but to those who are doing the labor. So I say pay a decent wage and stop exploiting vulnerable people and then come to me with your problems because that’s all going to change when every employer in the country has to verify that they are hiring by the rules. That’s why I’m calling on Congress to put an E-Verify bill on my desk to sign. If we’re going to ask others to abide by our laws we should expect no less of ourselves.”

We’ve got a few weeks to dream…

The other surge at the border

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the much-ballyhooed Latino vote in Texas border counties, but Todd Bensman compiled interviews with residents and found anecdotal evidence that immigration might have moved some Latino voters into Trump’s column:

Left largely unreported in the national press is that hundreds of thousands of Latino voters in rural Texas — the sons and daughters of early legal migration — also felt repulsed by the 2019 mass-migration crisis during which nearly one million illegal Central Americans swamped the border as Democratic voices encouraged it, litigated efforts to staunch the tide, and promised open gates under a Biden administration.

“The immigration thing was another reason. A lot of our community from Mexico came here legally. Others were born here in Texas,” said Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, a lifelong Democrat who stuck to his own party and won a fourth term in Val Verde County, which turned red around him for the first time in decades.

“The general feeling is that if someone comes to the U.S. they need to do it legally. I think that was probably a good majority of the Republican vote, yes.

Geraldo L. Cadava reports for The Atlantic: “Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, a Republican who narrowly lost her race for a congressional seat in the Rio Grande Valley, told me that Trump had helped Mexican Americans “find their voice.” Now they’re “walk-away Democrats” who shifted their support to Trump more dramatically than Latinos in other parts of the country.

“Trump aggressively talked about law and order in a way that appealed particularly to Latino men in the Border Patrol, military, and police departments. In the days before the election, Latino leaders of the National Border Patrol Council expressed support for Trump’s immigration and border policies. Art Del Cueto, the council’s vice president, said, “We must continue to support the rule of the law and continue to support President Trump.” Trump also received the endorsement of the National Latino Peace Officers Association Advocacy.”

Laura Barron-Lopez reports for Politico: “Trump saw marked improvement in Texas’s majority Latino counties along the U.S.-Mexico Border. For example, Trump lost Starr County by about 5 percent of the vote — boosting his numbers in the county by 55 percent compared to 2016.” Tony Gonzalez, a Republican won a congressional seat that includes a large swath of the Texas-Mexico border. He said, “There’s no doubt that the enthusiasm for the president specifically along the border was real. I mean people were energized and excited. Here you had first generation Hispanics wearing MAGA hats.”

Christian Paz reports for The Atlantic: “…some {Latinos} support Trump’s border wall, some support limits on immigration generally, but almost all pivoted to the economy when the subject came up, arguing that unregulated immigration could have a negative effect on their own well-being.”

Or maybe it really was all about the oil.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Sustainability Initiative for NumbersUSA

Take Action

Your voice counts! Let your Member of Congress know where you stand on immigration issues through the Action Board. Not a NumbersUSA member? Sign up here to get started.

Action Board

Donate Today!

NumbersUSA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that relies on your donations to works toward sensible immigration policies. NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation is recognized by America's Best Charities as one of the top 3% of well-run charities.


Immigration Grade Cards

NumbersUSA provides the only comprehensive immigration grade cards. See how your member of Congress’ rates and find grades going back to the 104th Congress (1995-97).

Read More