Posted on May 7, 2024

There’s Been a Major Shift in Demographics at the Border. Here’s What’s Behind the Change.

David Noriega et al., NBC, May 4, 2024

Shortly after dawn, in the desert east of San Diego, a group of migrants huddled around a campfire. They had come together on this desolate stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border from four different continents: Young men from India shared snacks with women from Nicaragua, while a man from Georgia stood next to a family from Brazil.

A volunteer with a local humanitarian group hauled over a beverage cooler filled with papers: legal information printed in 22 different languages. As he handed them out — in Gujarati, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian — he said, “Welcome to the United States.”

This is the new normal of migration to the southern border: What was once mostly a regional phenomenon has become truly global, with the share of migrants coming from the four closest countries dropping and the number from elsewhere around the world increasing.

An NBC News analysis of newly released data from the Department of Homeland Security shows a fundamental shift. Before the pandemic, roughly 9 in 10 migrants crossing the border illegally (that is, between ports of entry) came from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the four countries closest to the border. Those countries no longer hold the majority: As of 2023, for the first time since the U.S. has collected such data, half of all migrants who cross the border now come from elsewhere globally.

The greatest numbers have come from countries farther away in the Americas that have never before sent migrants to the border at this scale. In the 2019 fiscal year, for example, the number of Colombians apprehended illegally crossing the border was 400. In fiscal 2023, it exploded to 154,080 — a nearly four-hundred-fold increase.

But they come, too, from countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and every region in Asia. There have been dramatic increases in the number of migrants from the world’s most populous countries: Between fiscal 2019 and 2023, the number of migrants from China and India grew more than elevenfold and fivefold, respectively. And some countries that previously sent negligible numbers of migrants to the U.S. border have seen staggering increases. In fiscal 2019, the total number of people from the northwest African nation of Mauritania apprehended at the border was 20. Four years later, that number was 15,260. For migrants from Turkey, the number went from 60 to 15,430. The list goes on: More than 50 nationalities saw apprehensions multiplied by a hundred or more.

Experts and U.S. government officials attribute this explosive growth in large part to the pandemic, which provoked mass migration around the world, adding serious challenges to an immigration system already beleaguered by a decade of severe backlogs. Another major factor is the massive expansion of transcontinental smuggling networks, itself fueled by widespread digital technology.


China offers one of the most illustrative examples of this new era of global migration. Between 2014 and 2022, the average number of Chinese citizens who crossed the southern border without papers in a given year was around 1,400. In 2023, that number grew to 24,050.

This would not have been possible without transcontinental smuggling networks like the ones used by Wei and his son. Though these networks have existed in some form for decades, they have grown dramatically in scale and organization.


The industry owes much of its growth to technology. The world’s migrants are now equipped with cheap smartphones that allow for frictionless communication and payments. Smugglers advertise widely on TikTok, WeChat, WhatsApp or whichever platform is popular in the country they’re targeting.

NBC News obtained access to the WeChat profile of one Chinese snakehead who claims to have moved over 100 people to the U.S. in the last year. He regularly posts videos of migrants on the trail meant to entice new customers. The videos make the journey look easy: smiling men flashing a thumbs-up outside hotels in Mexico, families riding calmly on buses. In one video, a woman crosses the border into the U.S. and shouts, “We finally crossed!” in Mandarin as her small child shouts joyfully in the background.

Experts and U.S. law enforcement officials describe these networks as loosely but intricately connected, comprising both illicit actors and legitimate businesses like travel agencies and bus lines. At certain key junctures, they are controlled by the most powerful criminal organizations in the Americas.

The Colombian side of the Darien Gap, for example, was recently taken over by the Gulf Clan, a notoriously violent narco-paramilitary cartel widely thought to be the largest cocaine exporter in the world. As a result, the Darien jungle, once considered nearly impassable, is now a route for mass migration traversed by hundreds of thousands of people a year. The opening up of this stretch of jungle alone likely accounts for a substantial share of the rise in global arrivals at the border.


In the last decade, there have been two paradigm shifts on the border, according to current and former U.S. immigration officials. The first began in 2014, with the arrival of unprecedented numbers of families and children from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador).

In a break from decades’ worth of migration coming almost entirely from Mexico, these migrants did not attempt to evade the Border Patrol. Instead, they willingly surrendered in order to apply for asylum — and they quickly overwhelmed a system designed for something else entirely.