In-Depth: Increase in border 'encounters' from countries hit hardest by COVID-19

ABC 10News breaks down CBP numbers
Border Wall
Posted at 5:53 AM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-09 13:54:08-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show San Diego's border is seeing a significant increase in people seeking help from countries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic during 2021.

CBP tracks "encounters" at the border, which includes all apprehensions and expulsions. Aid groups say it's a mix of people seeking asylum and people trying to enter the country illegally.

Numbers for the 2021 fiscal year are already higher than all of 2020, with people from Central America accounting for the overwhelming majority of encounters.

But, according to numbers given to ABC 10News, there has also been a noticeable increase of people from countries dealing with higher pandemic numbers.

CBP says the top five non-Central American countries of origin for 2021 are Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, and Venezuela. All five of those countries have seen COVID numbers surge since the start of the year.

Compared to previous years, CBP numbers show how the rise in infections had fueled the flow of people seeking help.

From Brazil, 987 people have been "encountered" this year by CBP agents from either the El Centro or San Diego sectors. That's already more than any of the previous four years. In 2020, there were 729 encounters. There were 151 encounters in 2019, 92 in 2018, and 218 in 2017.

From Cuba, CBP agents have "encountered" 170 people at San Diego's border this year. That's on pace to have more than 2020 when 219 people were encountered. The numbers for 2019, 2018, and 2017 are 168, 6, and 7, respectively.

From Ecuador, this year's number is 217. That's more than last year's 169 and on pace to pass the 403 in 2019. It's also well more than the 42 in 2018 and the 13 in 2017.

From Haiti, agents have "encountered" 1,053 people at San Diego's border. That's at a similar pace as last year's total number of 2,343 and already more than the previous three years combined. There were 471 encounters in 2019, 6 in 2018, and 55 in 2017.

From Venezuela, the number is 97. Previous years saw 62 in 2020, 56 in 2019, 4 in 2018, and 7 in 2017.

Local asylum and refugee aid groups say the pandemic has made an already bad situation worse in many of those countries.

"They don't feel safe in the neighboring country or in any other country," says Vino Pajanor, the CEO of Catholic Charities. "Their only safe haven is the United States."

Pajanor says they don't usually see people from those countries seeking help in San Diego, but the increase in numbers from this year has created more demand.

He says that leads to many issues with language and cultural barriers when people arrive in San Diego.

"We have to have those language and cultural skills so that we know how to treat them, how to welcome them in, and then provide them the knowledge and resources of what it means to be here," he says.

Pajanor uses the people from Brazil as an example of the extra difficulty.

"We have a lot of Spanish-speaking team members. But now we are seeing an uptick of folks that are coming in from Brazil, which is Portuguese speaking predominantly," he explains. "Now we have to hire team members or bring in volunteers who are Portuguese speaking so that we know how to communicate efficiently with them to let them know about the processes, their rights, and their obligations."

Pajanor says he's also seeing a rise in the number of people coming from India, which had a significant surge of COVID-19 infections during the spring.

Numbers from CBP show a steady increase in encounters with people from India in early 2021, starting with 36 in January, then 42 in February. In March, that number more than doubled to 87 as the surge took hold. In April, it nearly doubled again to 141.

Overall, San Diego's numbers from those countries were lower than border crossings in Arizona and Texas, but Pajanor says it still put a strain on the system. He says it was a combination of the backlog created by Trump Administration policies and the Pandemic.

"Just imagine a dam," Pajanor says. "A dam was built. And then you had water that was piling up behind it. At some point in time, the dam has to either be let loose to allow the water to flow through or it's going to break."

County leaders are working to address the issue. On Monday, San Diego Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher announced plans to create an Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Office. He says that will help streamline services for people seeking a better life in America.

Pajanor says that will help. But, he adds, he's already seen how the last year has brought out the best in his people.

"We no more live in a world separated by borders. It's one global village." Pajanor says. "We will look at this part in history and say, 'This is the time the San Diegans came together to take care of our fellow human beings and to be that rich region that shows the world and the United States that we can make a difference.'"