Published Jun 28, 2022
New data obtained by TRAC from U.S. Border Patrol (BP) reveals a detailed portrait of the enormous growth in children encountered by BP officers at the US-Mexico border over the past fifteen years. Since FY 2008 there has been a seventeen-fold rise in the numbers of BP apprehensions who are unaccompanied children. With rising overall apprehensions, this represents a striking eight-fold increase just between FY 2008 and FY 2019 in the proportion of all apprehensions who are unaccompanied children. There has also been a striking five-fold rise in all children when both unaccompanied and accompanied children are considered.
For the first time, newly released case-by-case detailed data on over 6.5 million Border Patrol apprehensions allow the public to take an in-depth look at these underappreciated long-term trends into who BP apprehends and how these individuals are processed. These valuable data were very recently received and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. TRAC secured access after a decade-long effort involving more than a hundred separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Looking back across 75 years, Border Patrol apprehensions have experienced periods of growth and decline.  Recently BP apprehensions have risen a great deal compared to their levels of a decade ago. However, they remain generally below levels that prevailed during the 1983-2006 period, or the jump in the early fifties. Against this backdrop, the recent increases are not unprecedented.
Taking this longer view, current times should be placed in context with these earlier periods – periods when the U.S. population was lower than today. In these earlier times, apprehensions relative to this country’s population size were at times higher than today. See Figure 1.
A striking change has occurred in the composition of Border Patrol apprehensions: since FY 2008 there has been a seventeen-fold rise in the numbers of BP apprehensions who are unaccompanied children.
Generally, available case-by-case data show that for many years children (0-17 years of age) made up relatively small numbers of Border Patrol apprehensions. Combining both unaccompanied juveniles with children arriving as part of a family group, monthly numbers from October 2007 (when available age-specific data begin) through FY 2012 were usually well under 5,000 per month.
Unaccompanied children were a relatively small component, typically between 1,000 and 1,500 per month. See Table 1 at the end of this report.
October 2013 was the first month Border Patrol apprehensions of children exceeded the 5,000 mark. In February 2014 the 12-month average rose above 5,000 and signified the initial first large group of children that arrived at the southwest border. This large group posed many challenges for the Obama administration and figured prominently in public policy debates during that time.  See Figure 2.
There are sharp peaks and valleys in month-to-month trends shown in Figure 2. These were driven by a myriad of changes in the push and pull factors that drove this flow, combined with seasonal weather conditions making it more or less favorable to try to cross between ports of entry. But annual numbers for children apprehended unlawfully crossing the border did not fall back to earlier levels. Instead, the numbers of children coming alone or in families have generally risen despite changes in presidential administrations. Only the unusual situation caused by the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a temporary but significant decline. 
In addition, the rise in the number of children has been much faster than any recent change in the number of apprehensions more generally at the border. Children apprehended by the Border Patrol have generally become an increasing proportion of all apprehensions. As mentioned earlier, there has been a seventeen-fold increase in the number of unaccompanied children since FY 2008. Even discounting FY 2020-2021 when Title 42 expulsions artificially changed the make-up of individuals relegated to those processed under Title 8, the proportion of unaccompanied children has risen from 1.1 percent of all apprehensions during FY 2008 to 8.9 percent during FY 2019 -- a significant eight-fold increase.  If we look at the proportion of all apprehensions who were children – both those arriving unaccompanied or part of a family group – then this has increased from 8.2 percent in FY 2008 to 37.4 percent in FY 2019 – a five-fold increase.
This new trove of detailed data also allows us to examine other characteristics of these children. There has been, for example, a marked shift in the countries from which these children come.  Trends here for children largely resemble overall shifts in the make-up of adults apprehended by the Border Patrol during this same time period. Early on children were largely from Mexico. During FY 2008, 53,000 out of the nearly 60,000 children were from Mexico. Beginning after FY 2010, children from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) grew quickly while those from Mexico declined. Beginning largely in FY 2019 there has been a sharp increase from other countries including Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, with some growth from Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, and Haiti, as well as Romania and, for a time, India. These trends started before Title 42 expulsions, which were applied unevenly across nationalities and artificially impacted the composition of Title 8 exclusions. 
We note that the pattern for unaccompanied children shows a parallel pattern, but with a much smaller uptick in apprehensions from other countries. The total number of apprehended unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle grew from only 314 during FY 2008 to 2,830 in FY 2019 and 3,655 during FY 2021. While unaccompanied children were largely excluded from Title 42 expulsions, the differences between unaccompanied and accompanied children may also reflect in part a greater capability of family units to make their way from farther distances.
|Fiscal Year||Total(with adults)||All Children(0-17)||Unaccompanied Children (0-17)|
|All||Guatemala||Honduras||Mexico||El Salvador||Other||All||Guatemala||Honduras||Mexico||El Salvador||Other|
With the termination of Title 42, the fate of MPP 2.0, and the future of other policies now before the federal courts, understanding who is arriving at the US-Mexico border is of heightened public interest and concern. The number and fate of children who have become a more and more substantial proportion of arriving individuals should be a central consideration in what the country’s policies and practices should be.
TRAC has sought the cooperation of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to promptly provide updated case-by-case data needed to allow the public to closely monitor what is currently occurring between ports of entry and how the Border Patrol is processing children, families and single adults who it apprehends. To view the currently available data for yourself, including details on over 200 nationalities, go to TRAC’s newly updated and free Border Patrol web-query tool.