There’s been a major shift in demographics at the border. Here’s what’s behind the change.

JACUMBA HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — 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.

These shifting migration flows account for a significant portion of the record-breaking numbers at the border that have dominated this year’s election cycle. They amount to a major reorganization of global migration patterns — and a paradigm shift for U.S. immigration policy and international relations.

“Fundamentally, our system is not equipped to deal with migration as it exists now, not just this year and last year and the year before, but for years preceding us,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview with NBC News. “We have a system that was last modified in 1996. We’re in 2024 now. The world has changed.”

A sophisticated Chinese snakehead network illustrates a new era in migration

The landscape around Jacumba Hot Springs, a town of fewer than 600 people near the eastern edge of San Diego County, is rocky and mountainous. The steel border fence stops at several points where the ground rises into sharp, ragged inclines dotted with boulders, leaving spaces easy for migrants to squeeze through. Border authorities routinely block these gaps with razor wire only for smugglers to snip them open again.

surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)

surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)

One afternoon in March, a group of about 30 migrants from China clambered through one such gap and into the United States. Among them was Wei Bin, a middle-aged man from the port city of Tianjin who traveled with his 14-year-old son. Wei said the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, coupled with China’s repressive zero-Covid policies, had led him to the conclusion that his home country offered no viable future for his son.

So they took off for the United States. In an interview with NBC News, Wei described their 45-day journey: They flew first to Ecuador, one of the few countries in the Americas that accept visa-free travel from China, and from there they moved painstakingly north.

The trip was arranged by Chinese smugglers known as snakeheads. Wei never saw his snakeheads, and he knew nothing about them — he communicated with them exclusively via WeChat and paid for everything online. The smugglers’ services cost him around $10,000 per person, and in return, he received precise instructions on where and how to meet with an interlocking series of local contacts, often members of pre-existing criminal smuggling networks based in each of the countries he traveled through. It was these smugglers — Ecuadorians, Colombians, Mexicans — who did the actual work of moving Wei and his son from one place to another.

The journey was not easy. Somewhere in Colombia, the first snakehead stopped responding to Wei’s messages, scamming him out of thousands of dollars and leaving him stranded until he got the contact for a new snakehead from another Chinese migrant on the trail. And while Wei and his son were in a small boat circumventing a portion of the infamous Darien Gap — a dense stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama — they watched another boat full of migrants capsize.

“I would not recommend anyone undertake the route that we just took,” Wei said. “It’s too perilous.”

surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)

surge of chinese migrants NN video (NBC News)

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.

“Different networks often specialize in specific nationalities,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on migration to the U.S.-Mexico border at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “So if you’re Somali, you arrive in Quito and join a group of Somalis that’s already underway. One smuggler hands you off to another, and the network of relationships goes all the way up to the U.S.-Mexico border.”

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 2021, the gateway to the Darien was just local Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people working as guides.” Isacson said. “By 2022, the Gulf Clan took over, and you suddenly had a clear route. They were advertising, there were people there ready to take your money, and it was all much more organized.”

It was this vast, global network of interlocking smugglers that moved Wei and his son along their way to the U.S. They eventually made it to Tapachula, in southernmost Mexico, where they boarded a domestic flight to Tijuana. There, once again, they were in the hands of powerful criminal organizations: According to U.S. officials, the smuggling business on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border is currently dominated by the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.

Along with the larger group of about 30 Chinese migrants, Wei and his son spent the night in a run-down safehouse minutes from the border. “Conditions were very poor, and we only got the basics, like water and soup,” Wei said. “If we wanted anything more, we had to pay.”

The next day, smugglers piled them into a three-row van, drove them to the border, pointed at the gap in the fence, and told them to walk across.

An inflection point to overhaul an ill-equipped system

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.

“Our existing infrastructure, processes and personnel were no longer matching what was happening on the ground,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former longtime official with DHS and Customs and Border Protection.

The system was optimized to apprehend and quickly deport single adults from Mexico. It was badly ill-equipped to process families and children and move them through complex legal asylum proceedings. Immigration courts were soon bogged down in yearslong backlogs.

The second paradigm shift is happening now. Beginning around 2018, there were spikes in the number of migrants from Cuba, then Haiti, then Venezuela. Then the pandemic happened: Economies cratered and borders closed, and when they reopened, it unleashed pent-up waves of migration across the globe. And that initial surge triggered by the pandemic is now sustained by the smuggling networks that greatly expanded to facilitate it.

This has piled more weight onto an already buckling system. The U.S. only has the capacity to deport people quickly and in large numbers to Mexico and the Northern Triangle, according to a senior CBP official who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. Deportations are expensive and logistically challenging — they require airplanes, personnel and time to arrange for travel documents, and so on — and there is no such infrastructure in place, the official said, to deport people en masse to Africa, Asia or even South America.

The position of Mayorkas and the Biden administration is that these problems can only be meaningfully addressed by a congressional overhaul of the immigration system, such as the one proposed in February in a now defunct bipartisan Senate bill.

“We cannot process these individuals through immigration enforcement proceedings very quickly — it actually takes sometimes more than seven years,” Mayorkas told NBC News. “The proposed bipartisan legislation would reduce that seven-plus-year waiting period to sometimes less than 90 days. That’s transformative.”

Even with a reformed system, the U.S. would remain a single country confronting a phenomenon that directly involves a large share of the world.

“To manage regional migration flows, you need to get the cooperation of a few countries,” Brown said. “To deal with hemispheric migration flows, you need about 20 countries. To deal with global migration flows — now you’re talking about hundreds of countries.”

Those countries need persuading to do anything from restricting visas to physically interdicting migrants with armies and police forces. And many countries, especially those historically hostile to the U.S., are reluctant to be persuaded.

Nicaragua, for example, allows visa-free travel from more than two dozen African countries and several from Asia as well; that makes it a major point of arrival in the Americas for migrants who then move north to the U.S.-Mexico border. And some geopolitical adversaries — notably China — do not routinely accept deportees from the U.S. Though Mayorkas told NBC News he is engaged in high-level talks with Chinese officials to change that, such an agreement would only partially fix a small part of a much bigger problem.

“We’re at an inflection point,” Brown said. “We have to recognize that what’s happening at our border is a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere. This is not a U.S.-Mexico border problem. This is now a worldwide issue.”

Crackdowns and Loopholes

Shortly after Christmas, when border crossings once again hit record highs, Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an official state visit to Mexico City. In the weeks that followed, Mexico’s National Guard cracked down on migrant routes.

This immediately and substantially reduced the number of people who managed to get across the border. But average daily crossings remain high compared to prior years, and in the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, the drop was negligible.

Sam Schultz, a humanitarian volunteer who lives near the border and delivers supplies to migrants every day, said smugglers now simply avoid the National Guard patrols and send migrants to more remote and rugged crossings.

In the last few months, Schultz has learned a lot about how people the world over find their way to these isolated mountains.

“They’re very aware of what they’re getting into and where they’re going,” he said. “This was never true before everybody had a phone in their pocket.”

Schultz said crackdowns — whether by American or Mexican authorities — ultimately do little to deter migrants from attempting to cross into the U.S.

“Any person on American soil — and it doesn’t matter how they got here — is allowed to start due process on an asylum case,” Schultz said. “Anyone. So as long as that is true, people are going to attempt to cross the border and get on American soil. Why would it ever be any other way?”

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