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Border arrests have hit an all-time high, but the numbers don't tell the whole story

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. Border Patrol recorded nearly 1.7 million migrant apprehensions at the southern border over the past year, and that's the highest number ever, eclipsing the record set more than two decades ago. Those numbers, however, don't tell - the numbers don't tell the whole story. NPR's Joel Rose is here with more. And, Joel, let's get into the details. What are you learning about these apprehensions?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: We just got the official numbers today from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And they show that the Border Patrol apprehended migrants 1,659,206 times last year at the southern border, which is a record. That's the headline for sure. But when you look more closely at the numbers, it is not quite that simple.

CORNISH: So what are the complexities we can't see?

ROSE: Well, there are a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of migrants in this total of nearly 1.7 million apprehensions are getting counted more than once. And that is because of Title 42. That's the controversial public health order that's been in place since the beginning of the pandemic. It allows immigration authorities to rapidly expel migrants at the border, but it also means that those migrants can cross multiple times without any permanent mark on their record. And so a lot of migrants are doing exactly that and getting counted more than once. Recidivism is much higher this year than it has been in recent years - over 30% according to immigration authorities. So the actual number of individual migrants crossing is somewhat smaller than 1.7 million.

CORNISH: Still, does the department have the kind of the resources for this? It's a lot of apprehensions.

ROSE: It is a lot of apprehensions. No matter, you know, what the actual exact number of migrants is, it's a huge number. And many of these migrants are being quickly expelled. The majority are. But many are being allowed in. Families and children are being allowed into the U.S., where they can make asylum claims in many cases. And that's a strain on the humanitarian groups on the border who help these migrants. It's also a lot of pressure and work for Border Patrol agents. There's a lot of processing of migrants going on, and that takes agents away from other duties like trying to stop smugglers bringing in drugs and other contraband. I talked to Brandon Judd this week. He's the head of the union that represents Border Patrol agents. And he said morale is low.

BRANDON JUDD: I've never seen it as bad as what it is right now. We just don't have the manpower and resources to do what we need to do to both detect and apprehend everything that's crossing the border.

CORNISH: How does all this compare to the year 2000 - right? - when the previous record for apprehensions was set?

JUDD: Yeah. The border was a different place back then in some ways. Back then, immigration authorities caught a lot fewer border crossers. By DHS' own estimate, there were nearly 4 million illegal crossings that year, and Border Patrol agents caught less than half. And the demographics were also very different then. It was mostly single men, mostly from Mexico. And they were, you know, largely trying to evade capture by the Border Patrol.

Now a large percentage of border crossers are women and children who are trying to seek asylum or other protections in the U.S. Many of them are coming from Central America, but a growing number come from either further away like South America, Africa and the Caribbean. And they're trying, essentially, to get caught by the Border Patrol. So while this is a record number of apprehensions, there have been other years when likely many, many more people crossed the border illegally because the Border Patrol is just catching a much higher percentage of border crossers today.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACCO GARDNER'S "FADING COSMOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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