It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

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Things aren’t exactly settling down along the U.S. border with Mexico, with the U.S. Border Patrol reporting 178,416 apprehensions in the Southwest in June, its highest monthly total since early 2000. 

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

Emergency rules adopted early in the Covid-19 pandemic that allow for the immediate expulsion of most unauthorized border crossers and people who arrive at the border seeking asylum have resulted in “a larger-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection says. The number of “unique individuals” the Border Patrol and the agency’s Office of Field Operations (OFO), which manages border crossings and ports of entry, has encountered so far this fiscal year is actually slightly lower than at this point in 2019. But 2019 was a pretty big year for illegal immigration too.

Here are Border Patrol apprehensions measured by fiscal year going back to 1960, with an estimate for fiscal 2021 that assumes the June apprehensions level will be repeated in each of the next three months (the fiscal year ends September 30). The numbers usually go down over the summer so that’s probably an overestimate, but this has been a weird year.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

We’ve just been through a decade of very low illegal immigration, as measured not just by border apprehensions but by estimates based on Census data, which indicate that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. actually fell 14% from 2007 to 2017. Now border apprehensions could surpass the peaks of 1986 and 2000, and while the number of individuals arrested may not, because of the multiple-crossings effect described above, it does not seem out of line to equate what’s going on with the great illegal-immigration wave of the late 20th century.

That late 20th century wave was driven mainly by young Mexican adults looking for work, and there are similarities in that sense too. For the past decade, most of the crises and controversies along the border have involved families and children fleeing violence and deprivation in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and in many cases seeking asylum in the U.S. They’re still doing that, but families and children haven’t been driving most of the recent increase in border encounters. Single adults have.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

These data include OFO encounters with what the agency used to call “inadmissibles,” which I left out of the first two charts because they aren’t readily available going back decades like the Border Patrol numbers are. There were 10,413 such encounters along the Southwest border in June, making for a total of 188,829 border encounters overall. The “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras was, if counted together, the largest source of unauthorized immigrants in June, but it no longer dominates the numbers as it did during the border-crossing wave of 2019. So far this fiscal year, slightly more have been from Mexico.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

There has also been a big increase in unauthorized Southwest border crossings by people from places other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle, enabled in part by the Mexico’s lack of pandemic-related restrictions on incoming travel. Some have come from far afield — since October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports encounters with 3,520 Romanians, 1,407 Indians and 1,211 Russians along the Southwest border — but most are from elsewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

What is driving all these people to the U.S.? I’m no expert on the ins and outs of immigration policy, but the available data seem to indicate that border-policy changes in the U.S. are at most a secondary driver of the trends we’re seeing. Illegal immigration was very low for most of the 2010s, only to begin rising in 2019. The pandemic initially brought it to a near halt, but by last summer the numbers were rising again. That is, there was less illegal immigration during the Obama years than the Trump years, and the latest wave started before Joe Biden was elected president.

Another thing that started before Biden was improving job prospects and pay for less-educated, lower-wage workers in the U.S. (which is what unauthorized immigrants often end up being, although their education levels have been rising), and a period of U.S. economic outperformance relative to Mexico.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

Sustained U.S. economic outperformance in the 1980s and mid-1990s accompanied and probably helped cause earlier waves of illegal immigration. From about 2006 to 2017, Mexico’s economy grew faster than that of the U.S. while residential construction here — a big employer of Mexican immigrants — pretty much collapsed. No wonder an estimated two million unauthorized Mexican immigrants went back home.

Now, the performance gap between the U.S., where growth is picking up, and Mexico, where the economy is 4.7% smaller in real terms than it was three years ago, is the biggest it’s been since the mid-1990s. Remittances to Mexico from abroad, which come chiefly from the U.S. and fell in real terms from 2007 to 2013, are now 36% above their previous peak, and appear to be accelerating.

It’s Back to the 1990s Along the Southern U.S. Border

Mexico is far from the only Latin American country struggling at the moment. Covid-19 has hit the region harder than just about anyplace else on earth in terms of both deaths and economic damage. With the U.S. experiencing one of the world’s strongest recoveries from the pandemic recession, it should be no surprise that it’s attracting lots of economic migrants from points south — or that, with legal immigration recovering only slowly from both the pandemic and various Trump administration efforts to slow it, so many are attempting to make the crossing without permission.

Now it is certainly also possible that some of these people are crossing the border in reaction to the change in immigration messaging from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, and the somewhat less-punitive enforcement approach along the border. But that doesn’t explain why border encounters are so much higher now than in, say, 2016. Economic divergence does.

Some of this year’s rise in border activity is probably a temporary rebound from the pandemic slowdown, and the demographic forces that helped drive the 1980s and 1990s immigration wave are weaker now that Latin America’s fertility rate has fallen to a below-replacement-level two births per woman. But the wounds of the pandemic may not heal quickly in Latin America, with political instability a growing threat across the region. This surge could last awhile.

With employers across the U.S. complaining of difficulties in filling jobs and U.S. population growth screeching to a halt, an increase in the number of foreigners wanting to work here seems like it could represent an opportunity as well as a headache. But it’s the kind of opportunity the U.S. political system has generally proved incapable of seizing in recent decades.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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