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Growing Numbers of Children Try To Enter the U.S.

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).

Border Patrol Apprehensions—The Long View

Looking back across 75 years, Border Patrol apprehensions have experienced periods of growth and decline. [1] 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.

Figure 1. U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions.

Growing Numbers of Children at the Border

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. [2] See Figure 2.

Figure 2. U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions of Children Under Title 8, October 2007 - September 2021

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. [3]

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. [4] 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.

Who Are These Children?

This new trove of detailed data also allows us to examine other characteristics of these children.[5] There has been, for example, a marked shift in the countries from which these children come. [6] 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. [7]

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.

Table 1. U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions of Children under Title 8 by Citizenship, FY 2008 - FY 2021
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
All 6,511,892 1,350,640 392,037 351,982 286,333 198,172 122,116 621,867 199,442 171,422 130,440 101,827 18,736
2008 723,862 59,579 1,755 1,854 53,392 1,701 877 8,081 1,391 3,407 1,578 1,391 314
2009 555,944 40,347 1,465 1,218 35,494 1,648 522 19,646 1,114 16,114 961 1,214 243
2010 463,382 31,222 1,679 1,175 25,317 2,211 840 18,622 1,501 13,727 1,023 1,907 464
2011 340,252 23,089 1,719 1,084 17,994 1,545 747 16,067 1,567 11,773 977 1,394 356
2012 364,768 31,029 4,054 3,329 19,039 3,726 881 24,481 3,835 13,974 2,997 3,314 361
2013 420,789 47,397 8,694 9,009 21,247 7,134 1,313 38,833 8,068 17,240 6,747 5,990 788
2014 486,651 107,613 24,114 37,559 18,764 24,960 2,216 68,631 17,068 15,651 18,253 16,405 1,254
2015 337,117 62,167 20,787 11,208 13,360 15,505 1,307 40,035 13,599 11,026 5,414 9,396 600
2016 415,816 102,264 31,389 21,365 13,853 32,672 2,985 59,757 18,926 11,940 10,474 17,514 903
2017 310,531 82,769 28,153 19,859 10,181 22,479 2,097 41,546 14,855 8,894 7,799 9,147 851
2018 404,142 107,498 49,100 31,833 11,450 12,489 2,626 50,145 22,359 10,167 10,919 4,954 1,746
2019 859,501 321,708 127,190 118,187 14,054 42,019 20,258 76,136 30,361 10,513 20,405 12,027 2,830
2020 207,665 40,740 11,954 7,732 9,479 3,731 7,844 19,657 6,990 6,310 3,391 1,883 1,083
2021 621,472 293,218 79,984 86,570 22,709 26,352 77,603 140,230 57,808 20,686 39,502 15,291 6,943


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. Border Patrol Arrests

[1]^ Arrest-by-arrest details covering all Border Patrol apprehensions under Title 8 are now accessible through TRAC’s newly released web-query tool covering FY 2008 – FY 2021. Title 42 expulsions are from CBP’s annual reports, based on unique individual counts. For annual Border Patrol apprehension figures extending back to 1947, see earlier TRAC report, “Controlling the Borders.”
[3]^ These data only track Title 8 apprehensions. Adding Title 42 expulsions would add only a modest increase in children apprehended since for most of this period children arriving alone were not subject to Title 42 expulsions. Even family groups with children were subject to limitations in exclusion practices for most of this period. See CBP Nationwide Encounters.
[4]^ Because unaccompanied children were largely not subject to Title 42 expulsions, the proportion for Title 8 apprehensions reach 22.6 percent during FY 2021.
[5]^ TRAC’s Border Patrol Arrests free web-query tool allows users to examine gender patterns, along with finer detail within children of various ages.
[6]^ Part of the growth after FY 2019 from other countries is because some of these children who were part of family groups were unable to be excluded under Title 42, so a higher proportion were processed under Title 8. Thus, in FY 2021 children from other countries grew to 77,603 from just 20,258 in FY 2019.
[7]^ For numbers by country, see source referenced above in footnote 5.
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.