Migrant encounters with Border Patrol at the U.S. southern border topped two million in the past year, setting a new record, according to government data. Amid the surge in crossings, there has been a distinct shift in migrants’ countries of origin.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed on Sept. 19 that there were more than 2.1 million migrant encounters during the first 11 months of the 2022 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. This year’s 2.1 million encounters were substantially higher than the record 1.7 million encounters in 2021.
These encounters include migrants crossing the border to seek asylum, a protection people fleeing persecution in their home countries can legally request. Asylum has been granted to a larger number of people in recent years under President Joe Biden’s Administration, according to TRAC Immigration. The total number of encounters has also been slightly inflated as a growing number of migrants are apprehended more than one time by Border Patrol.
In recent years, the majority of people crossing the border into the U.S. have been from Mexico followed by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a trio sometimes referred to as the Northern Triangle, the Associated Press reported in 2019. Over two million people are estimated to have left the region since 2014, escaping poverty and extreme levels of violence, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the number of migrants from Mexico and northern Central America, including the Northern Triangle, dropped by 43% since August 2021, according to CBP data. Conversely, migrants from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua comprised over a third of August encounters, a 175% increase from one year ago.
Internal conditions in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, in addition to U.S. government policies and perceptions of those policies, have contributed to the sudden shift in the nationalities of migrants traveling to the border, according to experts.
Biden Administration policies
One of the chief factors affecting immigration more broadly is the Biden Administration’s effort to ramp down President Donald Trump’s programs that sought to limit border crossings, including Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and Title 42, according to Michael Paarlberg, an assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies migration.
Title 42 is a decades-old section of the U.S. Code that allows the government to prohibit immigration if doing so would prevent the spread of contagious diseases. In what was touted as an effort to lower COVID-19 transmission, the Trump Administration, citing Title 42, authorized border officials to turn away migrants. Biden attempted to end the measure in May 2022, but a federal court blocked the termination, TIME reported.
The attempts to do away with these measures have convinced migrants that “the Biden administration is open to processing people who seek asylum,” Paarlberg told McClatchy News.
An important factor influencing immigration specifically related to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela is the U.S. government’s strained relations with all three nations. They are viewed as having oppressive, authoritarian regimes and have been subject to harsh economic sanctions.
“In order to deport someone, you have to have an agreement with the country [of origin] to accept deportations,” Paarlberg said. “These are three countries that have hostile relations with the U.S. and do not have any such agreement with the U.S.”
“The U.S. cannot force [migrants at the border] to get on a plane back to Cuba because Cuba would not take them,” Paarlberg explained, noting that the government allows citizens from these countries to remain in the U.S. while pursuing asylum claims. “So this is one main driver of the numbers.”
The land route
Another factor specific to Cuba is that the Biden Administration warned Cubans in July 2021 against attempting a journey to the U.S. by sea, reiterating a 2017 reversal of the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which allowed Cuban migrants who reached the U.S. to pursue asylum.
“So instead of coming by boat, they’re coming by foot because they’re much more likely to get paroled into the U.S. [at the southern border],” Daniel Di Martino, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute studying immigration, told McClatchy News.
Their exodus has been aided by Nicaragua, which removed visa restrictions for Cubans in 2021, allowing them access to Central America to begin their northward trek toward the U.S. border. American government officials have “accused Nicaragua’s authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, of enacting the policy to pressure the United States to drop sanctions on his country,” according to the New York Times.
Following the disincentivization of sea travel and new access to Central America in the form of visa-free travel to Nicaragua, large numbers of Cuban migrants elected to embark on the long, treacherous, overland route through Central America, the Washington Post reported.
The Mexican government also imposed visa restrictions on Venezuelan visitors in late 2021 in an attempt to stem the large number of people who were flying in and then crossing the U.S. border, according to Reuters. This lead more Venezuelan migrants to travel by land through Central America.
“President Biden pressured the government of Mexico to stop allowing Venezuelans to travel visa-free to Mexico, and that basically forced the Venezuelans to go by foot to Mexico,” Di Martino said.
“It would take them a long time to get up here,” Paarlberg said. “So it’s possible that a large number of people left Venezuela in the recent past and are beginning to arrive now.”
Poor political and economic conditions
Government policies and economic conditions in all three countries are also major factors in rates of migration to the United States.
“Failing communist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are driving a new wave of migration across the Western Hemisphere, including the recent increase in encounters at the southwest U.S. border,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said in a statement on Sept. 19.
“The reason people are coming is primarily because they’re facing persecution, terror or trauma in their home countries or they’re unable to feed their families in their home countries,” Sarah Sherman-Stokes, a clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Law who studies immigration law, told McClatchy News. “So these are not choices that people make lightly.”
The authoritarian regimes in all three nations have engaged in repression, harassment and/or detention of critics, according to Human Rights Watch. The Nicaraguan government “arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted government critics and political opponents, including presidential candidates, journalists, lawyers, and leaders of community;” the Cuban government “relies on long and short-term arbitrary detention;” and the Venezuelan regime engaged in torture and extrajudicial killings, according to the nonprofit.
Di Martino, who fled Venezuela in 2016, says the country has primarily been “destroyed by the socialist regime of Maduro, and there will continue to be an outflow of people until the internal situation changes.”
Sherman-Stokes says “Our foreign policy, our trade agreements, our intervention abroad, especially in Latin America, as well as natural disasters, climate change, corruption, and violence, are fueling migration.”
The journey to the U.S. via Central America is thousands of miles long, expensive and dangerous, often including a trek through the infamous Darien Gap, a roadless jungle connecting Central and South America.