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Changes in the Demographic Makeup of Immigrants Arriving at the U.S. Southern Border
Veronica Montes, Ph.D.,
Topics: Immigration

Veronica Montes, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Latin American, Iberian, and Latina/o Studies minor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a 2023-2024 PRRI Public Fellow. 

Since 2014, I have conducted research in Tijuana, Mexico, and witnessed not only how the arrival situation of thousands of people at the U.S.-Mexico border has deteriorated, but also how the so-called “crises” have occurred with greater frequency. As of mid-December 2023, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reported that more than 10,000 immigrants per day, mostly asylum seekers, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What, exactly, is happening at the border? For years, immigrant shelters in border towns at the U.S.-Mexico border have been functioning over their capacity, which has led thousands of immigrants to set up encampments across the border. More recently, the year 2023 concluded with hundreds of people, including children, stranded in line despite cold temperatures, hoping to turn themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol officers to apply for asylum.

Over the last decade, Tijuana, like other border cities, has experienced changes in the patterns of migration. These changes include: the demographic makeup of immigrants; the geographical regions from which they come; the reasons that have pushed them to leave their home countries; the migration policies they encounter; and, most importantly, the American social attitudes awaiting them.

Who Migrates Today?

Today’s immigrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border differ significantly from those of earlier decades. Then, we saw single young men from rural backgrounds, largely from Mexico, whose goal was to evade the Border Patrol and enter the United States in search of work. And many held the idea of, one day, returning to Mexico.

Since 2014, however, the profile of the immigrant has changed. During the 2014 fiscal year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the apprehension of about 69,000 unaccompanied minors; by contrast, in November 2018 alone, 25,172 “family unit members” were apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. According to The Washington Post, in August 2023, families were the single largest demographic group crossing the border, “surpassing single adults for the first time since [President] Biden took office.” Family groups of young parents, single mothers, and young children have emerged as the new immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border.

Another noteworthy change reflects is the geographic regions from which migrants come. Four decades ago, immigrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border came mainly from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Today, the Migration Policy Institute reports apprehensions of people from more numerous and varied points of origin. Migrants leave regions including Central and South America (mainly Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador); the Caribbean (Haiti and Cuba, predominantly); Africa (Senegal and Ghana among other countries); Asia (China, Bangladesh and Nepal, among other countries); the Middle East (Afghanistan and Syria); and Europe (Ukraine). In 2017, during ethnographic fieldwork I undertook at one migrant shelter in Tijuana, personnel indicated that according to their records, they had sheltered immigrants from 45 different countries from all continents.

Seeking Asylum Is a New Migration Trend at the U.S. Southern Border 

Compared to those who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border ten years ago trying to evade the Border Patrol to enter the U.S., the main goal of current immigrants is to turn themselves over to authorities and apply for asylum. Today, immigrants do not seek to enter the U.S. as economic immigrants as was the case for several decades, but rather as asylum seekers. According to The New York Times, in 2022 more than 800,000 people applied for asylum, a 63% increase from the previous year. Asylum seekers present serious challenges to the capacity of the U.S. migration system.

In a report released in July 2023, the Migration Policy Institute stated that the U.S. migration court system was in crisis. As of April 2023, almost 2 million cases were pending in the immigration court system. That translates, on average, into a four-year waiting period for asylum seekers before their first hearing.

Americans’ Attitudes Toward Immigration 

Since 2013, PRRI has surveyed Americans´ attitudes toward immigration. Over time, PRRI has added policy questions to better capture the effect of the changes in the demographic makeup of immigrants who are either living in the United States or arriving at the border. For instance, in 2013, the PRRI/Brookings Citizenship, Values, and Cultural Concerns Survey, found that 63% of Americans were in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants living in the United States a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements. Today, the proportion who hold that sentiment is 60%, according to PRRI’s 2023 American Values Survey. The same survey found that 59% of Americans oppose passing a law to prevent refugees from entering the U.S., similar to the results from 2017 when the question was first asked as the Trump administration began significantly restricting entry to refugees.

While American attitudes toward immigrants already living in the United States are consistently favorable, there is still insufficient data on American attitudes toward those seeking asylum.

Last September, PRRI’s 2023 American Values Survey asked  —  for the first time  —  a question specifically related to asylum. When thinking about asylum seekers, Americans are divided. About half (48%) oppose passing a law that would prevent asylum seekers from coming to the United States if they have not first sought protection in some other country, compared with the nearly half (47%) of respondents who favor such a law.

With thousands of asylum seekers now staying in various American cities that are far from the southern border (in some cases overwhelming social services systems), and with 2024 being a presidential election year, the issue of migration will once again be in the eye of the hurricane. This will be particularly important for the Democrats. PRRI’s 2023 American Values Survey found that 65% of Americans disapprove of President Biden’s handling of immigration. Again, as has happened many times in the past, the public perceptions of the border “crises” might be used for the benefit of any of the presidential candidates.