(Evan Vucci/AP)

“Illegal crossings are near their lowest level in decades.”

— President Obama, remarks on immigration reform, June 11, 2013

“We can build on the progress my administration has already made … reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”

— Obama, State of the Union address, Feb. 12, 2013


We are always interested in even slight shifts in presidential rhetoric. What happened in the space of four months, so that the president’s claim that illegal crossings were at a four-decade low was suddenly softened to the lowest level in “decades”?

Let’s take a look.

The Facts

When the president speaks of “illegal crossings,” he is speaking of “illegal alien apprehensions.” This is an imperfect metric, because officials can somehow manage to tout as a success both a high number (“look how many we caught”) and a low number (“look how much it has dropped.”)  It’s also unclear if the same person is caught more than once.

In his statements, Obama has focused on the fact that border apprehensions had dropped along the southern border of the United States.

In fiscal 2011, for instance, the number totaled 327,577, which was indeed the lowest since 1972, which is how Obama was able to claim a 40-year low in his State of the Union address. How much this was due to administration policies is open to question, since the figure had dropped nearly 60 percent since the Great Recession began in late 2007, indicating that dwindling economic opportunities certainly played an important role.

Indeed, when the numbers for fiscal 2012 were released, they showed a slight uptick in apprehensions — to 356,873. Moreover, apprehensions just in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border soared more than 65 percent. The upward trend has continued in the first six months of 2013, climbing 13 percent compared with a year earlier, suggesting that the figure could reach 380,000 for the full year.

What’s going on? First, the U.S. economy is improving. Second, Mexican fertility rates have dropped while its economy is improving, creating less pressure for migration. But Central America remains poor and is becomin increasingly violent, so migration patterns are changing.

“While apprehensions across the southwest border remain near historic lows, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] has noted increases in apprehensions in South Texas, specifically of individuals from Central American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” said Danny Tirado, a spokesman for the Rio Grande Valley office.  “To address these changes, CBP continues to make significant investments in technology and infrastructure across south Texas and today, has more than 6,000 BP agents in the region, an increase of more than 80 percent since 2004.”


The Pinocchio Test

Kudos to the White House for staying on top of the changes in the data. The increase in apprehensions, at this point, does not suggest a return to huge influx of illegal aliens before the recession, but it is enough of a shift that it is appropriate to modify presidential claims of success.

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