Decades ago, the vast majority of migrants attempting to cross the border between ports of entry were Mexican. A few years ago, most came from the Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But now, according to Border Patrol statistics, the number of people coming from outside these places – from countries like Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela – is increasing rapidly.
To better understand this trend, CNN dove into the data. Here’s a look at what we’re seeing, why this change is so important, why it’s happening, what it looks like on the pitch, and what could happen next.
What we see: There is a big change in who comes to the US-Mexico border. Large numbers of migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle still make the journey. But the number of migrants from other countries, shown here in purple, has increased dramatically.
In 2007, the number of migrants in this “other” category was negligible. But since then it has risen dramatically – 11,000% – with the biggest increase in the past two years alone.
Encounters with U.S. Border Patrol consistently show more Mexican migrants attempting to cross the southwest border in July than from any other individual country. But so far this exercise, for the first time, encounters with migrants from outside Mexico and the Northern Triangle exceed encounters with migrants from either region.
A handful of countries make up a large part of this growing group on the border. The number of times U.S. Border Patrol officials on the southwest border have encountered migrants from Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela has increased dramatically over the past two years.
A caveat about the numbers: For this analysis, we used US Customs and Border Protection statistics on border patrol encounters, which include both migrants apprehended and detained, at least temporarily, at the border, and migrants immediately deported to their country of origin and Mexico. This data gives us the best overall picture of who is arriving and what is happening at the border.
This is an issue that primarily affects migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, who are more likely to be subject to Title 42 restrictions than migrants from other countries.
Why it matters: Doris Meissner, who leads US immigration policy work at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the increase in the number of additional nationalities at the border “makes border enforcement all the more more complicated”.
“These populations … require different types of responses,” says Meissner. “We have not put in place an asylum system that is in any way up to the challenge that this change has brought.”
Bier says the groundwork for the trend was laid under the Trump administration. But the situation President Joe Biden faces on the border is unlike anything previous administrations have faced.
“What he faces, in terms of trying to restrict entry into the country, is completely different from what any other president has faced,” Bier said. “These realities aren’t really reflected in the overall numbers. Looking at the number of people crossing, it’s just not representative of the unique circumstances of having to manage flows from so many different countries and so many country outside this continent.”
But Bier says officials aren’t doing enough.
“The Biden administration cannot respond to this new reality with the same old playbook,” he said on Twitter. He told CNN that’s exactly what the administration seems to be doing. “It’s a lot of the same kinds of responses,” he says.
Why this is happening: There’s no simple reason why this happens, says Bier.
“There are as many responses,” he says, “as there are countries represented in this group.”
Meissner, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, says the pandemic has played a major role in intensifying economic pressures.
Deteriorating economic conditions, food shortages and limited access to health care are increasingly pushing Venezuelans to leave, and a growing Venezuelan community in the United States is also a draw, Meissner says.
For Colombians and Nicaraguans, economic instability — compounded by the pandemic — has been the main driver of migration, she says, but politics also play a role.
And those who previously considered neighboring Costa Rica as a destination, she says, are more likely to look elsewhere due to dwindling job prospects there.
Rising inflation and unemployment in Colombia are further fueling migration, Meissner says. Social unrest after a wave of protests in 2021 and political divisions that intensified in the recent presidential election are also likely influencing migrants’ decisions, she says.
What it looks like on the ground: It’s not just something we can see with statistics. Migrants and Border Patrol officials say they are noticing the change.
“The countries we’re getting now – these nationalities are flying in, coming in at the border, and they have to be processed and there are so many that it poses a challenge for the workforce,” he said .
One room was filled with Cubans, she said. And another was full of people from different countries.
“There were Colombians, Bangladeshis, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians,” she said. “It felt like the whole world was in there.”
What could happen next: Like everything about the border, there’s a lot of debate about what officials should do about it.
Bier and Meissner say the changing composition of migrants at the border shows just how much the US immigration system needs an overhaul.
“Many, if not most, of these people are unlikely to qualify for asylum, even if they are fleeing very difficult conditions,” Meissner said. “We desperately need Congress to address immigration laws and allow there to be other legal avenues to come to the United States.”
And countries in the Western Hemisphere must work together and approach migration as a shared responsibility, she said.
So far, there is no indication that this trend is slowing down. And Bier and Meissner say they don’t expect that to be the case.
“It’s entirely plausible to think that this could continue for many years,” Bier says, “because we don’t have the infrastructure to evict people as quickly as they arrive.”