Encounters at the US-Mexico border surged in December, underscoring immigration debate

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle towing a patrol boat is let through a gate at Shelby Park Sunday, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox visited the city that day with 13 other governors to discuss border security concerns.

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle towing a patrol boat is let through a gate at Shelby Park Sunday, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox visited the city that day with 13 other governors to discuss border security concerns. (Brigham Tomco, Deseret News)

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WASHINGTON — As debate rages over border security, the most recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures indeed show a surge of apprehensions and other activity along the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to the latest figures released in late January, U.S. border officials reported 302,034 encounters along the Southwest border in December. That figure — representing the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended, deemed inadmissible or processed for expulsion — is the highest monthly total since March 2020, when current tracking practices were implemented. The March 2020 figure totaled 34,460 encounters.

Taken as a measure of movement by immigrants trying to cross illegally into the United States, the December number underscores the sharp attention among lawmakers across Utah and in Washington, D.C., to securing the border.

U.S. Senate Republicans had crafted a measure to beef up border security, but it failed on Wednesday, 50 voting against it, 49 voting for it. Beyond that, U.S. Rep. John Curtis was planning a border visit on Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox traveled to the border last Sunday and U.S. Reps. Celeste Maloy and Burgess Owens visited the area in early January, all to bring attention to the issue.

More and more from other countries

The 302,034 encounters along the Southwest border last December compares to 269,735 last September, the next-highest figure dating to March 2020. The lowest monthly figure dating to March 2020, when the new tracking practices were implemented, occurred in April 2020, when officials registered 17,106 encounters.

Encounters for October, November and December last year, meantime, totaled 785,422, more than the 719,017 encounters for the same three-month period in 2022; 518,935 in 2021; and 218,036 in 2020.

Aside from the overall jump, the most recent figures show an increase in encounters involving people from outside of Mexico and Central America, traditionally the source of many of the undocumented immigrants coming to the United States.

Mexicans accounted for the largest number of encounters last December involving people from a single country, 69,042. Next came Guatemalans, 35,366; Hondurans 20,947; and Salvadorans, 6,396. Those coming from other countries, though, totaled 170,283, 56.4% of all encounters in the month and more than Mexico and the three Central American nations combined.

In December 2020, by contrast, Mexicans accounted for 39,370 of the 73,994 encounters that month followed by Guatemalans, 12,454; Hondurans, 10,358; and Salvadorans, 3,921. Those from other countries totaled 7,891, just 10.7% of the total.

In releasing the figures for December on Jan. 26, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection press release said preliminary numbers for the first half of January show the numbers now headed in the opposite direction. "Consistent with historical trends and enhanced enforcement, the first two weeks of January saw an over 50% decrease in Southwest border encounters between ports of entry according to preliminary figures," the statement said.

'Biden's border crisis'

Notwithstanding the sharp increases in encounters, federal lawmakers have been unable to reach middle ground in addressing the issue, highlighted by the defeat of the border security bill in Wednesday's voting.

Utah's two senators, both Republican, disagreed on the bill. Sen. Mike Lee voted against the measure. Sen. Mitt Romney voted for it, according to the Washington Post.

"We just stopped the fake border deal in the Senate — for now. Amazing victory for the American people," Lee said in a post on X, reflecting the sharp criticism the measure had drawn from some Republicans, even though they crafted it.

In earlier comments to the HuffPost, Romney had lamented the decision of Republicans to turn their backs on the bill, which the Associated Press said earmarked $20 billion for immigration enforcement. Immediate action, he said in a comment to KSL.com after the vote, is still needed.

"The border crisis demands action right now and we had legislation that would have helped fix (President Joe) Biden's immigration mess, which is why I voted to get on the bill," Romney said.

As for the border visits, Curtis, who represents Utah's 3rd District, will be the latest to visit the area when he travels to Sierra Vista, Arizona, on Thursday. He's going with 12 other Republican House members for a field hearing on what the GOPers call "Biden's border crisis."

Gov. Spencer Cox visited the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas last Sunday with 13 other Republican governors, lamenting the state of border security. U.S. Reps. Celeste Maloy and Burgess Owens, who represent Utah's 2nd and 4th Congressional Districts, respectively, visited the border at Eagle Pass, Texas, on Jan. 3.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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