Why the number of encounters at the southern U.S. border does not mean what the GOP says it means

Like many other Republican candidates and conservative talk show hosts, Kari Lake is using the racially tinged issue of immigration to fuel turnout in her gubernatorial campaign in Arizona. The former television anchor has boldly proclaimed that on her first day as governor, she would declare the state under “invasion.”

Lake is not the only conservative politician to speak in hyperbolic terms about immigration during the midterm campaign season. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have sent migrants on buses or planes to mostly cities in the Northeast, most notably New York and Washington D.C., to draw attention to what they perceive as a crisis – and to appeal to their political base.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described his efforts to combat the crisis as a “dereliction of duty” and possible grounds for his impeachment.

“These astronomically high numbers are due in no small part to the political decision to rescind a number of President Trump’s policies that were stemming the flow of illegal aliens and illicit drugs across the southern border,” Cruz and Graham’s letter said.

Indeed, the numbers that were used to support their claims were tweeted in September 2022 by Cruz, who said that 4.2 million “illegal aliens” had crossed the border since the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021.

The Republican National Committee says that number, which it claims represents “a crisis of Democrats’ making,” breaks down to about 2 million so far each year.

As midterms approached, citing these numbers had become commonplace – and misleading. As an immigration researcher and expert on international borders, I have followed the figures that purport to track the number of immigrants crossing the border for years. I am worried that the figures cited are being repeated without providing an adequate explanation.

These numbers represent encounters, not the number of individuals who have come across the border. It’s a misleading and inaccurate way of describing the number of people coming into the U.S.

The meaning of encounters

For decades, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has released the number of arrests at the United States-Mexico border. But that changed two years ago as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and new agreements signed with the Mexican government.

In March 2020, the federal agency announced that it would add another category to the total number of apprehensions – the number of expulsions.

The combined statistics were then called “encounters.”

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were a total of around 4,450,240 encounters from January 2021 to October 2022.