At 5:00 today, U.S. Customs and Border protection released its latest count of migrants it apprehended at the border. The Homeland Security Department’s release about the numbers, and some of the press coverage, seems certain to trigger another freakout from President Trump:
The number of apprehended illegal border crossers increased slightly from the previous month and climbed by 160 percent in May 2018 in comparison to May 2017. …As the May numbers indicate, we are seeing family units try to illegally cross our borders at staggering rates.
Wait, slow down. A few points here.
- May is nearly always one of the heaviest months of the year. It’s seasonal. May is the last month before the summer heat gets most intense, and the journey becomes too risky. Look at this chart of the past 7 years’ monthly migration totals. The last 7 months of May are denoted with pink arrows. It’s normal to see a springtime peak now in apprehensions of migrants, followed by a drop in summer.The only time that didn’t happen was in 2017, when Trump’s January inauguration brought a sharp drop in its wake, bringing last spring’s monthly apprehension totals to levels not seen probably since the 1970s. The summer saw a gradual recovery from that anomalous drop.
- Take away kids and families, and this was the second-lowest May of the last seven years. This is fascinating: subtract apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and members of family units—nearly all of whom come to the United States seeking asylum or protection—and the remainder (blue in the graph above) is historically low. For single adults not seeking protection—until recently the “typical” migrant profile—May 2018 saw the sixth lowest number of apprehensions of the last seven Mays. The only May that was lower was May 2017, when the so-called “Trump effect” was in full swing, radically depressing migration.
- All of the increase is kids and families. Single adults are flat since March. May 2018 was the second-highest of the last seven Mays for child and family apprehensions. But single adults are flat: 24,367 apprehended in March, 24,323 in April, and 24,454 in May. That’s a variation of 0.5 percent. All the growth is kids and families.
- The greatest growth in kids and families this year is from Honduras. Guatemala and Salvador are up, but it looks more seasonal. We still don’t have a solid reason why, though the turmoil surrounding Honduras’s disputed late-November elections could explain some of it.
- Although it’s now the only way to avoid jail and family separation, people aren’t using ports of entry more—not yet, anyway. The Trump administration has started locking up, criminally prosecuting, and taking children away from asylum-seeking parents who cross between ports of entry, because they crossed “improperly” and broke the law. This generally does not happen to people who ask for asylum at the border’s 45 official crossings, or “land ports of entry.” (Dara Lind explained this well yesterday at Vox.) It’s still legal to ask for protection in the United States if your life is provably in danger in your home country.
Because it’s the only clear way to avoid being imprisoned under the new “zero tolerance” regime, we may expect a sharp increase in arrivals at the ports of entry. We’re now seeing coverage of long lines forming in El Paso, Nogales, Miguel Alemán, and Reynosa.
But the data don’t reflect that yet: more people did not use the ports in May. 5,548 children and family-unit members presented themselves at the ports of entry, down from 6,460 in April and 6,219 in March. This may be because word hasn’t gotten out yet, among protection-seeking migrants and their smugglers, that this is the best way to cross. But it may also be because Customs and Border Protection is using measures of dubious legality to try to prevent migrants at the ports from touching U.S. soil and petitioning for asylum.