July 6, 2018

Border apprehensions of migrant families have risen substantially so far in 2018

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12 near McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The United States apprehended nearly 49,000 family members at the U.S.-Mexico border between January and June of this year – more than twice as many as during the same time period last year, and the highest number during any January-June period since at least 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Family members also increased as a share of all border apprehensions (24%) over this period compared with the past six years.

All told, there were nearly 203,000 apprehensions along the southern U.S. border during the first half of the year, compared with around 104,000 during the same period in 2017. These figures include family members as well as unaccompanied children and individuals.

The apprehension of families and unaccompanied children has received renewed attention following the Trump administration’s announcement of a “zero tolerance” policy in April. The policy led families to be separated at the border starting in May, though President Donald Trump ended the separation policy in an executive order late last month.

Family units make up an increasing share of U.S. border apprehensionsThis May – the first full month during which the policy was in effect – border agents apprehended 9,485 family members at the U.S.-Mexico border. This represents a significant increase over the same month last year (1,580), though is still lower than in May 2014 (12,772), when apprehensions spiked amid a surge in immigration, particularly among Central American children. Family apprehensions made up nearly a quarter (24%) of all Southwest border apprehensions in May this year, the highest share for that month since at least 2012.

Though Trump ended the separation policy in late June, Customs and Border Protection apprehended a similar number of family members at the Southwest border that month (9,449), representing a slightly larger share of all June apprehensions (28%).

One result of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy has been increased public attention on family separations. A total of 2,342 children were separated from families between May 5 and June 9 of this year, according to Customs and Border Protection. Around 2,000 adults from those families were referred for prosecution. The agency has not published data on family separations occurring before May 5, so it’s not yet known how these totals compare with prior time periods. However, estimates from the Department of Homeland Security suggest more than 4,100 children have been separated since October 2016.

U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied children rose substantially over past yearBorder agents also apprehended around 6,400 unaccompanied children on the Southwest border this May, a figure higher than each previous month during the 2018 calendar year and a notable increase over the same month last year (1,473). However, the number of unaccompanied children apprehended in June declined to around 5,100. (Unaccompanied child apprehensions do not include children who were apprehended as a family unit and later became unaccompanied as a result of prosecution initiatives.)

The vast majority of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border come from Mexico or the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

So far in fiscal year 2018 (from October 2017 to the end of June), more than 66,000 family members from Northern Triangle countries have been apprehended at the border, compared with around 71,000 in all of fiscal 2017. Around half of these family members came from Guatemala (33,389), followed by Honduras (24,451). In addition, around 1,600 apprehended family members were from Mexico, which has seen declines in immigration to the U.S. in recent years even as Northern Triangle countries have outpaced growth elsewhere.

Many families are leaving countries with high levels of violent crime, a fact highlighted last year by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence when he said “vicious gangs and vast criminal organizations” drive illegal immigration to the U.S. In 2016, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people), followed by Honduras (at a rate of 56.5). Guatemala was 10th (at 27.3), according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Poverty represents another motivating force for migration from Central America. Northern Triangle nations are among the poorest in Latin America, and although some have seen a reduction of poverty in recent years, high shares of people still live on less than $2 a day (the international poverty line is $1.90). Within Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras has the second-highest share (16%) of people below the international poverty line, after Haiti (24%), according to the latest data from the World Bank. Guatemala is fourth-highest at 9%. In El Salvador, 2% of people live below $2 a day.

Given the level of poverty in the region, some migrants seek out economic opportunity in the U.S. in hopes of sending money back to their home countries. Most remittance dollars flowing to Latin America come from the U.S., and for Northern Triangle countries in particular, remittances make up a relatively large share of each country’s gross domestic product. In Honduras, for example, remittances were 19% of the nation’s GDP in 2017, according to data from the World Bank. In comparison, remittances were about 3% of Mexico’s GDP last year.

For unaccompanied children, family reunification could also be a strong driver. Among children from the Northern Triangle who were apprehended by the U.S. between January 2014 and April 2015, 60% were released to a parent already living in the U.S. Fewer than 10% were released to a non-family sponsor, such as a family friend or a person the family had no previous relationship with, according to an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Topics: Immigration Trends, Global Migration and Demography, Migration, Immigration

  1. is a research assistant at Pew Research Center.