Illegal Immigration Is a Bigger Problem Than Ever. These Five Charts Explain Why.

Illegal Immigration Is a Bigger Problem Than Ever
Illegal Immigration Is a Bigger Problem Than Ever


Record numbers of migrants are coming with children and from countries they can’t be deported back to, overwhelming U.S. authorities.

Historically high numbers of people are illegally entering the U.S., straining an immigration system already overwhelmed by the number of families coming across the border to request asylum.

Border agents made 2.05 million arrests in the federal fiscal year that ended in September, new government data show, the second year in a row that figure has exceeded two million. In the past, the numbers have risen and fallen based on significant economic and policy changes like recessions and pandemic-era border restrictions. But they never exceeded 1.7 million and never stayed at an elevated level as long as they have the past few years.


Illegal Border Encounter
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Illegal Border Encounter

The record numbers of people entering the country illegally aren’t the only reason border communities are struggling in Texas and shelters are full as far away as Massachusetts. In the past, most migrants were single adults from Mexico looking for work. If caught by the Border Patrol, they could easily and quickly be deported.

Now, a fast-growing share are families with children, who are difficult to deport to their home countries. The change started around 2014 and has exploded in the past two years.

Many families are fleeing gang violence in Central America, though recently a growing number are escaping political repression and poverty in South America.

After crossing into the U.S., they typically surrender to the first border agent they find.

Smugglers encourage adults to travel with children, telling them they are likely to be quickly released into the U.S. because the Border Patrol doesn’t have the capacity to hold families for more than a day or two. Once released, they can wait years for their cases to be processed in clogged immigration courts.

Some initially stay in shelters, taxing resources in places such as Chicago and New York as numbers have grown recently. But most eventually find jobs in a U.S. economy that has recovered from the Covid-19 downturn more robustly than Latin America.

Shifting migrant routes

Routes to the U.S. have changed in recent years, with a particular shift toward Texas. Some people head there because it is the closest border crossing from Central and South America. Others want an entry point closer to their final destination on the East Coast.

But Border Patrol resources have historically been built up in Arizona and California, where Mexican migrants were more likely to cross.

The agency tries to quickly move staff, but savvy smugglers often target spots where they know U.S. authorities have the least ability to detain people.

The result has been a surge of migrants crossing the Rio Grande into Texas and regular releases of families by overwhelmed Border Patrol agents in communities like Del Rio and the Rio Grande Valley.

Recently, though, the daily flow of migrant families and others from harder-to-deport-to countries has grown so large that even border cities with the most resources, like El Paso and San Diego, are struggling to handle the number of people arriving every day.

When deportations are difficult

Managing large numbers of illegal border crossings is tougher when migrants can’t be easily deported.

Because Mexico and the U.S. share a border and have long had strong relations, deporting migrants from that country is relatively easy.

Recently, a large number of people are coming from countries that have strained ties with the U.S., making deportations difficult or impossible. Since 2022, for instance, more than 715,000 Cubans and Venezuelans illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, fleeing political repression and economic distress.

Venezuela and Cuba both recently agreed to start accepting deportees for the first time in years, though it remains to be seen if the change will deter migration.

Economic problems caused by the hangover of the Covid-19 pandemic also are driving increased migration from South American countries like Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, which accept U.S. deportations but require long and costly flights.

A global problem

Migration to the U.S. is becoming increasingly global, with more asylum seekers from as far away as India, Uzbekistan and Mauritania making their way to Mexico and then crossing into the U.S.

The expanding roster of starting points is making it more difficult for the U.S. government to devise a comprehensive migration strategy. The reasons people are leaving their countries differ vastly from nation to nation. The U.S. must also negotiate more diplomatic arrangements to ensure foreigners can be deported.

Researchers and officials say that so long as demand for low-skilled labor remains high in the U.S. and political, economic and environmental distress keep pushing people to leave troubled countries, the numbers of people willing to do whatever it takes to cross the border will remain high.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at, Michelle Hackman at and Santiago Pérez at

Illegal Immigration Is a Bigger Problem Than Ever. These Five Charts Explain Why.
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Illegal Immigration Is a Bigger Problem Than Ever. These Five Charts Explain Why.
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