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 those places — from countries such as Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela — is growing fast.
To better understand this trend, CNN dove into the data. Here’s a look at what we’re seeing, why this change is so significant, why it’s happening, what this looks like on the ground and what could happen next.
What we’re seeing: There’s a big change in who’s coming to the US-Mexico border. A large number of migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle are still making the journey. But the number of migrants from other countries, represented here in purple, has significantly increased.
Back in 2007, the number of migrants in this “other” category was negligible. But since then, it’s grown dramatically — 11,000% — with the sharpest increase in just the past two years.
US Border Patrol encounters still show more migrants from Mexico attempting to cross the Southwest border in July than from any other individual country. But so far this fiscal year, for the first time, encounters with migrants from outside Mexico and the Northern Triangle are outpacing encounters with migrants from either of those regions.
A handful of countries make up a large portion of this growing group at the border. The number of times US Border Patrol officials at the Southwest border encountered migrants from Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela has increased dramatically over the past two years.
One word of caution about the numbers: For this analysis, we used US Customs and Border Protection statistics on Border Patrol encounters — which include both migrants who are apprehended and detained, at least temporarily, at the border, and migrants who are immediately expelled to their home countries and Mexico. This data gives us the best overall picture of who is arriving and what’s happening at the border.
This is an issue that mostly affects migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, who are more likely to be subjected to Title 42 restrictions than migrants from other countries.
Why this is significant: Doris Meissner, who directs US immigration policy work at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, says the rise in additional nationalities at the border “makes border enforcement all the more complicated.”
“These populations … require different kinds of responses,” Meissner says. “We have not established an asylum system that is in any way up to the level of the challenge that this change brought about.”
Bier says the groundwork for the trend was laid during the Trump administration. But the situation President Joe Biden is facing at the border is different from anything previous administrations have encountered.
“What he’s dealing with, in terms of trying to restrict entry to the country, is completely different than what any other president has had to deal with,” Bier says. “Those realities are not really reflected in just the overall numbers. Looking at the number of people crossing, it’s just not representative of the unique circumstances of having to handle flows from so many different countries and many countries outside of this continent.”
But Bier says officials aren’t doing enough.
“The Biden administration can’t 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 types of responses,” he says.
Why it’s happening: There’s no simple reason why this is occurring, Bier says.
“There are as many answers,” he says, “as there are countries represented in that group.”
Meissner, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993-2000, says the pandemic has played a major role by 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 are also playing a role.
And those who previously saw neighboring Costa Rica as a destination, she says, are more likely to look elsewhere due to decreasing job prospects there.
Rising inflation and unemployment in Colombia are fueling more migration, Meissner says. Social unrest after a wave of protests in 2021 and political divisions that intensified during the recent presidential election are also likely influencing migrants’ decisions, she says.
What this looks like on the ground: This isn’t just something we can see with statistics. Both migrants and Border Patrol officials say they’re noticing the shift.
“The countries we’re receiving now — those nationalities are flying in, arriving to the border, and they’re having to be processed and there’s just so many of them that it is posing a challenge to the workforce,” he said.
One room was packed 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 connected with the border, there’s a lot of debate about what officials should do about this.
Bier and Meissner say the changing makeup of migrants at the border shows how badly the US immigration system needs an overhaul.
“Many, if not most, of these people are not likely to be eligible for asylum, even though they’re fleeing very difficult conditions,” Meissner says. “We desperately need to have Congress address the immigration laws and make it possible for there to be other legal pathways to come to the US.”
And countries across the Western Hemisphere need to work together and address migration as a shared responsibility, she says.
So far, there’s no sign this trend is slowing down. And Bier and Meissner say they don’t expect it will.
“It’s entirely plausible to think that this could continue for many years,” Bier says, “because we don’t have the infrastructure to expel people as fast as they come in.”