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Fact Sheet: Changes in Migrant Demographics at the Southwest Border

Since the summer of 2021, there has been a shift in the demographics of arriving migrants at the Southwest border. Available border data shows a dramatic increase in migrant arrivals fleeing Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia, and a relative decrease in arrivals from more traditional sending countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Even as overall monthly encounters at the border have remained relatively stable, this demographic shift has had a major policy impact. This fact sheet will describe and visualize the changing dynamics at the border and their implications for asylum seekers, receiving communities, and border policy.

What is an encounter at the border?

This fact sheet will be relying on U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data on migrant encounters at the Southwest border.

Encounters occur when the government processes a migrant who has attempted to cross into the U.S. without authorization. Encounters can occur at official ports of entry or between ports along the border, and the term refers both to those apprehended attempting to evade detection and to those who have turned themselves to pursue asylum claims or other humanitarian protection under U.S. law. Encounters can occur under Title 8, in which migrants are held in custody or placed on alternatives to detention as they continue immigration court proceedings; or under Title 42, in which migrants are immediately expelled to Mexico or their home country without an opportunity to make a claim for humanitarian protection.

Importantly, the number of encounters is not synonymous with the overall number of individuals attempting to enter at the border without authorization. Encounter totals do not account for those who are able to evade detection by Border Patrol (so-called “got aways”). Encounter data can also be inflated because it counts migrants who attempt to cross again and again in quick succession as separate encounters. Estimated got-away rates have declined significantly in recent years, while repeat-crossing — or “recidivism” — rates are near record highs.

What demographic shifts have occurred at the border in Fiscal Year 2022?

In Fiscal Year 2022, the number of border encounters of migrants fleeing Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Columbia increased dramatically. While some months saw more significant increases than others, the numbers generally climbed throughout the year. These increases occurred even as migration from other countries declined over the same period.

Demographic Shift (September 2021 – September 2022)

Source: CBP Data

Across all of FY 2022, migration from these four countries accounted for 722,979 total encounters, or 30% of all encounters at the border. That total exceeds the proportion of arrivals from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which have accounted for a significant proportion of overall migration in recent years. Migration from the Northern Triangle amounted to 541,618 encounters in FY 2022, or just 23% of all encounters at the border.

How has migration from Venezuela changed over the course of FY 2022?

Rising numbers of arriving Venezuelan migrants have gained particular media attention in the summer and fall of 2022 — and for good reason. It used to be normal to see under 100 total Venezuelans encountered each month at the Southwest border. But CBP data shows that in August 2022, there were 25,349 encounters of Venezuelans. That is a 302% increase from August 2021 even as overall encounters declined during the same period. It’s about a 52,000% increase from August 2020, when just 49 total Venezuelan encounters were recorded. The number of Venezuelan arrivals increased again in September 2022 to 33,961.

The increase in Venezuelan encounters initially began in September 2021, when many migrants fleeing the Maduro regime were able to easily enter Mexico (often by air) and make their way to the U.S. border. However, after Mexico enacted visa restrictions on Venezuelans in January 2022, the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border briefly plummeted — declining from 22,779 to 3,072 in just one month.

But arrivals soon began to rise again, as Venezuelans began the journey on foot through Mexico and to the U.S. border. These individuals are among the poorest and most vulnerable fleeing insecurity in Venezuela, those desperate enough to brave the Darién Gap, a 60+ mile jungle footpath that remains one of the most dangerous migratory routes in the world.

Venezuelan Migration April 2021 – September 2022

Source: CBP Data

How have these demographic changes impacted immigration court processes and Title 42 expulsions?

Unlike migrants arriving from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia have typically not been expelled under Title 42 and instead allowed to stay in the U.S. to pursue asylum claims in immigration court under Title 8.

Title 42 is a pandemic-era policy that both the Trump and Biden administrations have used to immediately expel arriving migrants to Mexico or their countries of origin. Migrants expelled under Title 42 are not provided the opportunity to make claims for asylum under U.S. law. The use of Title 42 relies heavily on receiving countries agreeing to the rapid expulsions.

In Fiscal Year 2022, arrivals from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua were almost entirely exempt from Title 42 expulsions due to Mexico’s refusal to accept them and the lack of a working diplomatic relationship between the Biden administration and the governments in question. Colombians have also largely been exempted from Title 42 as the country has only agreed to receive a limited number of expulsion flights.

As a result, migrants from these four countries make up a very large proportion of those allowed to stay in the U.S. and pursue asylum claims under Title 8. In fact, those from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua accounted for the three most common nationalities of migrants not expelled under Title 42.

Migrants Allowed to Pursue Claims in Immigration Court (FY 2022)

Source: CBP Data

What are the policy implications of these demographic changes?

The increase in arrivals from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia — combined with the fact that migrants from these countries were largely exempt from Title 42 expulsions in FY 2022 — have had a series of policy ramifications:

  • Unlike other arriving migrants, Cuban arrivals are eligible for additional assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) through the Cuban Haitian Entrance Program (CHEP). Refugee resettlement agencies are responsible for delivering this assistance and have needed emergency financial relief to respond to the sudden additional need in FY 2022.
  • Many Venezuelan arrivals have been caught up in high profile migrant transportation schemes to northern cities and localities. In an effort to curb irregular migration from Venezuela, on October 12 the Biden administration announced a limited Venezuelan parole program and an agreement with Mexico to expand Title 42 to Venezuelans. Preliminary data suggests the policies have at least temporarily reduced Venezuelan arrivals. These policies have also raised significant concerns related to the safety of migrants returned under Title 42 and whether the parole program is accessible enough to serve as a real alternative to forced migration.
  • Migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia have historically been more likely to be granted asylum than applicants from other countries. Still, it is important to recognize that asylum remains a highly complex and difficult form of immigration relief to obtain. Without access to legal counsel, arriving migrants from these four countries will struggle to produce sufficient evidence to support a particularized claim of asylum and immigration judges will not be sympathetic to generalized claims. Regardless, the result of these new asylum seekers’ claims will not be known for several years due to the lengthy backlog in immigration court.

Asylum Case Success Rate by Nationality (FY 2021)

Source: TRAC Data

Are recent arrivals more likely to be single adults, family units, or unaccompanied children?

Migrant arrivals from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia are in general slightly more likely than average to be families and less likely than average to be unaccompanied children. A particularly high proportion of families are arriving from Colombia and Venezuela, at 47% and 35% respectively. However, most migrants from these countries — like the majority of arriving migrants overall — continue to be single adults.

Demographic Composition of Arriving Migrants (FY 2022)

Source: CBP Data

Are recent arrivals arriving at official U.S. ports of entry or between them?

Nearly all Colombian, Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants who arrived at the southwest land border in FY 2022 entered the U.S. at an unofficial land crossing point and were processed by border patrol. This disparity is largely because most official ports are either closed to asylum seekers or they lack capacity to process claims and have  unpredictable and years-long wait times for presenting a claim.

Percentage of Arrivals Between and At Ports of Entry (FY 2022)

Source: CBP Data


The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Alexandra Ciullo, Policy Intern, for her extensive contributions to this fact sheet.

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