The old model of illegal immigration along the southern border was shattered in 2021, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security this week that shows the demographics of the typical border jumper have been completely rewritten.
Mexicans, who for decades represented the overwhelming number of illegal immigrants, dropped to 28% of the flow, their lowest share “in recorded history,” according to Customs and Border Protection. Meanwhile, the number of women and girls jumping the border soared to nearly 400,000, more than doubling the average in recent years.
The figures were released in a belated fiscal 2021 data dump from Customs and Border Protection, which included a warning that the shifting demographics are making jobs more challenging for immigration agents.
“This trend is important because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not currently have agreements to electronically verify nationality with these different countries of origin, making removing or expelling their nationals more resource-intensive and time-consuming,” CBP said in its year-end analysis.
Records for overall illegal activity at the border in 2021 have been apparent for months, but the new data shows CBP’s struggle to keep up with the changes.
Migrants from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — known as the Northern Triangle — accounted for 44% of the illegal flow.
The remaining 28% came from farther afield outside Mexico. The previous record was 14%, CBP said.
The agency reported nabbing 388,249 women and girls, up 159% compared with the average from 2014 to 2019.
“The rising number of women and the shift from single adults to children and family units raise different processing needs and policy responses,” the agency said.
Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said blame for the surge of nontraditional migrants lies squarely at the feet of the Biden administration.
President Biden reversed a Trump-era policy and made clear that he would not turn away illegal immigrant children traveling without parents. The result was a record-shattering 146,054 unaccompanied juveniles nabbed by agents and officers in 2021.
The Biden team also changed policy on pregnant women. Mr. Bensman said a surge of women have shown up at the border “because they’re being let in.”
“Aspiring and intending migrants around the world are listening very closely to who is getting let in and who is not,” he said.
A decade or so ago, Mexicans made up about 90% of Border Patrol apprehensions at the southern border and the Northern Triangle nations accounted for 9%.
The remaining 1% or so — about 73,000 people total from 2005 to 2010 — were from farther afield.
CBP encountered nearly that many in a single month in September.
In its year-end analysis, the agency didn’t guess at the reasons but acknowledged that 2021 was “challenging” because of the changing demographics.
CBP said the most represented countries in that “other” category are Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba.
Those migrants usually pay more to smugglers.
Mexicans are typically paying $8,000 to $10,000 to get across the border, and Northern Triangle migrants generally are paying $10,000 to $12,000, according to The Washington Times’ database of smuggling prosecutions.
A Brazilian woman nabbed last month at a Border Patrol checkpoint near Laredo, Texas, said she paid $28,000.
Adam Isacson, a border expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the high numbers of migrants from outside Mexico and the Northern Triangle aren’t just a blip.
“The COVID-caused regional economic depression will take years to overcome in the rest of the region. Climate change, too, may cause more people to migrate in coming years. You’ve also just got a plague of misrule with repressive or incompetent governments running their countries into the ground,” Mr. Isacson said.
The strikingly high 2021 numbers could level off thanks to the Biden team’s revival of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy for some illegal border crossers and because Mexico — “under heavy U.S. pressure,” Mr. Isacson said — has changed its policy to require a visa.
That has put a dent in the number of more well-off Brazilians and Venezuelans who fly into Mexico and then bus north to the U.S. border. Still, it does nothing to stop them from coming by land through Central America.
Mr. Isacson said the revival of Remain in Mexico and the visa policy could prove temporary.
Although the Western Hemisphere dominates the “other” category, some migrants come much farther.
The usually quiet Border Patrol sector in Del Rio, Texas, reported capturing people from 106 countries in fiscal 2021. In the last week of November alone, Del Rio agents apprehended people from Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Syria, Lebanon and Tajikistan.
Mr. Bensman said dangers are lurking inside those numbers.
The Border Patrol’s sector in Yuma, Arizona, reported arresting several men last year who appeared on watch lists or were deemed terrorism suspects.
One, arrested in December, was identified as a “potential terrorist” with ties to “Yemeni subjects of interest.” The Border Patrol identified him as Saudi, but the Saudi Arabian Embassy said the man was not a Saudi citizen.
Mr. Bensman said that encapsulates one of the problems with the surge of illegal immigrants from nontraditional countries crossing the southern border: Sometimes, it’s impossible to know who they are.
Some migrants, particularly those trying to escape their past, dump their identity documents and concoct new identities when they reach the border.
CBP hinted at the difficulty in its year-end analysis when it said it lacked agreements with many of those countries to conduct electronic identity verification.
“It’s a confession that we don’t really know who’s coming through. It’s so easy to hide your nationality, or if you’re from the Punjab area of Pakistan and Pakistanis raise national security concerns, you just say you’re an Indian,” Mr. Bensman said.