Although we know the numbers of migrants detained by Border Patrol with some precision, we have less insight into the numbers successfully crossing into into the US interior.
Estimating successful entries has become much more complicated recently. A year ago, we were able to focus on single adults who were attempting to cross into the US undetected, prompting us to key principally on apprehension rates. While this activity continues, the primary form of illegal entry today is family units crossing the border without authorization, presenting themselves for apprehension to Border Patrol, and claiming asylum. Given that these family units are released in short order, claiming asylum today is the primary conduit to the US interior.
The classification of those claiming asylum is problematic. Conservative analysts have presumed that most migrants seeking asylum correctly appreciate that it will not be granted and therefore do not intend to show up at related hearings. Nathalie Asher, the acting chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation branch, recently made just this point to Congress, noting that 87% of released families in a pilot program are skipping their court hearings. Therefore, from the conservative perspective, the recent surge of asylum seekers may be considered just the latest manifestation of illegal immigration.
On the other hand, until their cases are heard — perhaps as much as three to five years into the future — asylum seekers typically have the right to remain in the US. During this time they do not count as either illegal or undocumented. Ultimately, however, historical precedent suggests that only 12% of those seeking asylum are likely to have it granted. So how should the others be treated? From the conservative perspective, they would probably be considered illegals, or perhaps illegals-to-be. For purposes of this analysis, we treat 88% of the apprehended asylum seekers as illegal and 12% to be considered legal by being granted permanent status in the US.
In some respects, the distinction is irrelevant. From the conservative perspective, the 12% granted asylum represent roughly the same impact as those who are ultimately slated for deportation—although asylum seekers are allowed to work pending the disposition of their cases. For presentation purposes, they are treated as a single group of migrants entering the country. The average US citizen will be unable to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate asylum claims, and will instead focus on the very real number of new Central American students showing up in their public school system. The aggregate headcount is likely to matter more than the ultimate status of those seeking asylum.
Determining the number of migrants entering the US starts with apprehensions. We have forecast southwest border apprehensions month by month for 2019, assuming April represents the peak of the year, with May close behind and then a gradual decline to the end of the year, but at substantially elevated levels compared to last year. This yields total annual apprehensions for calendar year 2019 at 931,000, the highest since 2006 and double 2018’s level. Forecasting apprehensions in such a rapidly changing environment is inherently tricky, but we believe the ultimate tally for calendar year 2019 may reasonably be expected in the 750,000 - 1,000,000 range. This assumes no major change in US asylum policy; that the April inflection point reflects the underlying trend rather than just an aberrant data point; and that the volume of asylum seekers tapers, but does not collapse in the second half of the year.
Because Border Patrol provides monthly apprehensions data by family status, we can forecast the share of total apprehensions which will represent unaccompanied minors (UACs); persons in family groups; and adults traveling without family members. As the graph below shows, border apprehensions of family units have rocketed up since last July when Judge Dana Sabraw deemed the administration’s Zero Tolerance policy unacceptable. Judge Sabraw decried “government conduct that arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child.” “Such conduct,” he wrote, “is brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency.”
Had the apprehensions continued at the seasonally adjusted pace of January to June, we estimate Border Patrol would have apprehended 393,000 migrants in 2018.
However, with Judge Sabraw’s ruling preventing the deportation and separation of families claiming asylum, family units began to flood in. From August, the numbers began climbing quickly, and based on the last four months of the year, would have led to 598,000 apprehensions at the southwest border for the calendar year 2018 as a whole, 200,000 more than apprehensions at the January to July pace. As it was, apprehensions in the August - December period were about 70,000 higher than expected for that five month stretch, and this can be considered the impact of the Sabraw ruling through year-end 2018.
The bigger numbers, however, came with the signing of the omnibus spending bill (the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019) in mid-February, which essentially prohibited the deportation of any adult from the Northern Triangle countries traveling with an unaccompanied minor and claiming asylum. March and April each saw nearly 100,000 apprehensions, almost twice the pace of the last quarter of 2018 after the Sabraw ruling.
Attributing rising family unit apprehensions to rulings and legislation over-simplifies causality to an extent. However, it is clear that the Sabraw ruling and the omnibus bill represented turning points in apprehension trends. For practical purposes, we attribute the post-July surge to the Sabraw ruling, and the post-February surge in apprehensions to the appropriation bill itself, even if the gains cannot be definitively allocated between the two, or indeed, to other factors.
Our current apprehensions forecast of 931,000 for 2019 includes a rise of 333,000 over the level which would have been anticipated from the Sabraw ruling by itself. That is, the omnibus bill can be credited with an increase in border apprehensions of more than 330,000 for calendar year 2019.
Based on our apprehensions forecast, we can estimate successful illegal entries into the US interior for calendar year 2019.
Because minors and families cannot be held more than twenty days or deported, the vast majority of those entering the country are likely to gain admittance to the US interior. We estimate approximately 75% of those arriving as minors and 70% of adults arriving in family units will be released into the US. While their entry was illegal, their release into the US interior is not. However, as noted above, we treat 88% of them as illegal immigrants, assuming that they will remain in the US in most cases even if they fail in their asylum claims.
Of course, not all crossers are giving themselves up. We assume that adults traveling alone — who can be detained and deported — will continue to attempt to enter the US undetected. Generally, apprehension rates have recently been thought to be in the 55-70% range. We use 60%, under the assumption that adults traveling alone are more savvy than families and minors, on the one hand, and that Border Patrol is too distracted with the tsunami of asylum seekers to properly focus on traditional border jumpers.
We forecast the apprehension of 302,000 adults traveling without children in 2019. This is the highest since 2016, but does not represent a particularly exceptional pace. A 60% apprehension rate, and assuming three tries per migrant, yields just under 200,000 adults without dependents who will succeed in entering the US this year.
To this we can add 260,000 minors and about 185,000 adults in family units who will gain admittance to the US this year, of which 53,000 are projected to secure protected status over time.
For calendar year 2019, we anticipate 643,000 successful migrant entries into the US, including all of unaccompanied minors, minors and adults in family units, and adults traveling without dependents. US authorities are projected to release 1,220 persons / day into the US interior, versus a reported release rate of 1,230 / day in mid-May. Of the 643,000 anticipated to enter into the US, a bit less than 600,000 can be deemed ‘illegal’.
Pew Research estimates the unauthorized Hispanic population in the US in 2016, the latest year for which data is available, at 7.3 million. Thus, an increase of 600,000 would represent a 8% increase in the unauthorized population of Hispanics in the country — quite a large gain in percentage terms. More than 260,000 of the anticipated increase in border migration in calendar year 2019 can be attributed to the omnibus bill, and another 130,000 to the Sabraw ruling.