Ten Graphics That Explain the U.S. Struggle With Migrant Flows in 2022
Spurred on by worsening economic and political crises across Latin America, migration to the United States reached record levels in 2022. Here’s a look at the year’s major immigration stories.
Last updated December 1, 2022 2:50 pm (EST)
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President Joe Biden took office in 2021 with a promise to reform what he called an “inhumane” approach to U.S. immigration policy by his predecessor Donald Trump. But the challenges at the southern U.S. border deepened over the past year, with a record number of migrants apprehended as people increasingly fled rising violence and economic crises in Haiti, Venezuela, Central America, and elsewhere. In response, the White House has continued several controversial policies imposed under Trump, but it has struggled to manage an overburdened immigration system, and critics have called for greater protections for migrants. Here are ten graphics that explain migration flows to the United States in 2022.
Haiti’s Crisis Deepens
More than a year after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s humanitarian crisis has grown more dire. Amid continued political upheaval, the country has fallen deeper into economic disarray, with inflation reaching double digits and more than 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the combined effects of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, high fuel costs, and a surge in deadly gang-related violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince, have spurred calls for international intervention. To escape the turmoil, tens of thousands of Haitian migrants have risked their lives to seek asylum in the United States, with most making the dangerous journey to the southern U.S. border on foot or by boat. In response, the Biden administration deported [PDF] more than 14,700 Haitian migrants between January and October 2022, almost as many as it deported the entire previous year. It has also reportedly begun planning responses for a potential surge in migration by boat, which could include using temporary holding facilities at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Northern Triangle Exodus Continues
Over 541,000 of the more than two million migrants who arrived at the southern U.S. border in fiscal year 2022 (FY2022) hailed from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While Central America’s overall share of total migration flows to the United States has shrunk, migration from the region has rebounded to prepandemic levels after reaching a low of just over one hundred thousand migrants in FY2020. After decades of civil war and political instability, the Northern Triangle countries have among the lowest economic output and highest homicide rates in Latin America. Criminal violence was on the rise in 2022, and El Salvador’s sudden spike in gang violence led to a sweeping government crackdown. Meanwhile, immigration reform advocates say the implementation of Biden’s $4 billion plan to address the drivers of Central American migration has been slow [PDF].
Migrants Flock to the Darién Gap
Record numbers of migrants risked their lives in 2022 to cross the treacherous Darién Gap, a remote jungle region bridging Central and South America. The gap became a leading transit point for those in search of work and safety in the United States after authorities cracked down on other routes by air and sea. More than 151,000 migrants made the trek in the first nine months of the year, up from just a couple hundred people annually a decade ago. The majority were from Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, and Venezuela, though some traveled from as far away as Uzbekistan. At least eighteen migrants are known to have died along the route this year, though the actual figure is likely much higher. The numbers are only expected to increase, even as the United States ramps up expulsions and otherwise attempts to dissuade would-be migrants.
Border Crossings Reach Record Levels
Apprehensions of migrants at the southern U.S. border surpassed 2.3 million in FY2022, a record high. Migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela drove much of the increase, accounting for 24 percent of all apprehensions. After promising to reverse President Trump’s controversial border approach, Biden has struggled with the influx. He halted construction of the border wall, ended travel bans, restarted green card processing, and sent to Congress a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. But the legislation has stalled, and Biden has continued many Trump-era policies, including Title 42, a pandemic-related public health order allowing for the immediate expulsion of migrants. More than one million expulsions were carried out under Title 42 in both FY2021 and FY2022; however, in November 2022, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to quickly end the policy.
Immigration Backlog Hits All-Time High
The backlog of cases pending in U.S. immigration courts currently sits at almost two million—the most in history. From just over 186,000 cases in FY2008, the backlog began accelerating under Presidents Barack Obama and Trump before soaring during the Biden administration. Legal analysts have largely attributed the surge in cases to staffing issues; the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily halted in-person services and processing; and a deluge of new court filings that began in late 2021. Wait times for a hearing now average almost five years, including for migrants seeking asylum or other emergency humanitarian relief. Meanwhile, the average caseload for immigration judges has grown, with some having as many as five thousand pending cases [PDF] on their dockets.
‘Remain in Mexico’ Officially Ends
Months after a Texas district court forced the Biden administration to restart the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that the White House had the authority to officially end the controversial policy. Created under Trump, MPP sent asylum seekers apprehended at the southern U.S. border back to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in court. At the height of the program, more than 7,600 asylum seekers were returned to Mexico in a single month. MPP faced widespread criticism, with many policymakers and migrant rights activists arguing that it worsened human trafficking, forced migrants into dangerous and overcrowded shelters in Mexico, and violated U.S. and international laws against knowingly returning asylum seekers to unsafe conditions.
Child Migrant Apprehensions Increase
Immigration authorities apprehended more than 152,000 unaccompanied minors at or near the U.S.-Mexico border in FY2022, an all-time high. Children from the Northern Triangle countries accounted for three-fourths of these apprehensions; most others came from Mexico. Many children make the dangerous journey north to reunite with their families or escape poor conditions in their home countries, such as poverty, domestic abuse, and gang violence. Others are sent across the border alone to avail themselves of asylum protections for unaccompanied minors. The situation continues to challenge U.S. policymakers: the Trump administration was criticized for detaining children for long periods, and Biden has faced judgment over the use of bare-bones border patrol facilities amid struggles to expand temporary housing capacity.
TPS Covers New Countries
Biden announced first-time Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations for Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Ukraine in response to conflicts in those countries. Migrants from TPS-designated countries can apply to reside legally in the United States for up to eighteen months, during which time they are eligible for employment and travel authorization and protected from deportation, though they are not granted permanent residency or citizenship. Sixteen countries currently have TPS designations and approximately 355,000 migrants have had their applications approved, though extensions and new designations made in 2021 and 2022 mean 176,540 additional individuals could be eligible. Over 63 percent of all TPS holders are from Latin American countries, particularly El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela, where a worsening humanitarian crisis has caused more than seven million people to flee the country as refugees.
Foreign Worker Visa Program Expands
Amid nationwide labor shortages, Biden stepped up efforts to expand some temporary foreign worker visa programs in FY2022. His administration made available an additional fifty-five thousand H2B visas, or visas for seasonal, nonagricultural work, and expanded the number of eligible countries; it set aside a large portion of these visas for workers from Haiti and the Northern Triangle countries. However, temporary visas from the other two most popular categories, for migrants with specialized knowledge and spouses and children of visa holders, have fallen sharply since FY2019. Biden has also announced an additional 64,716 H2B visas for FY2023, almost double the existing annual cap. But critics say the programs’ low pay and lack of labor protections can lead to worker exploitation and the undercutting of American citizens’ wages.
Refugee Admissions Fail to Hit Target
The United States welcomed fewer than twenty-six thousand refugees in FY2022, or only 20 percent of the 125,000 available spots reserved by the Biden administration. Most came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. The low admissions rate continued a sharp downward trend in the number of refugees resettled under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 2016. After plummeting under Trump, admissions have sunk even further under Biden, reaching a record low of 11,411 in FY2021. As global conflicts continued to displace millions of people, Biden announced that he would maintain the 125,000 admissions cap for FY2023, though immigration policy experts have said that goal will be difficult to reach given slow processing times and the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will Merrow helped create the graphics for this article.