(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Fortunately, the apprehension numbers on the southern border are down the lowest they have been in a very, very long time, in part because of the things we have put in place there.”

— Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Fox News interview, Feb. 17, 2015

“I am also pleased that, due in large part to our investments in and prioritization of border security, apprehensions at the southern border — a large indicator of total attempts to cross the border illegally — are now at the lowest levels in years.”

— Johnson, news release, Feb. 17, 2015

Johnson made two essentially identical claims about apprehensions at the southern border, once while touting his agency’s successes during a TV interview and again in a statement in response to a federal judge’s order to halt President Obama’s immigration actions.

Regarding the stalemate in Congress over the funding of his agency, Johnson said the department is constrained at last year’s funding levels and limited from new spending and new initiatives. That applies to funding for border security, Johnson said. Fortunately, the department has decreased apprehensions to “the lowest they have been in a very, very long time,” but such efforts can’t continue without a fully funded budget, he said.

Is Johnson correct that apprehensions at the southern border are at the lowest level in recent years?

The Facts

Total Southwest border apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants reached a record low in fiscal year 2011, the lowest since 1972. Several factors contributed to this decline mainly among Mexican national immigrants, including the economic recession in the United States, improving economic conditions in Mexico, and deterrence through increased enforcement.

The Fact Checker in 2013 gave President Obama a coveted Geppetto Checkmark for correctly citing apprehension figures, after a slight uptick from 2011 to 2012. Indeed, the total number steadily increased since it reached the record low in fiscal 2011, at 327,577. In fiscal 2014, there were 479,371 total apprehensions — the highest it had been since fiscal 2009, according to data from Customs and Border Protection.

Yet for the first time ever recorded, there were more non-Mexicans than Mexicans apprehended in fiscal year 2014. This is indicative of what researchers call a new phenomenon in the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country — the surge of non-Mexicans.

This trend was especially evident last spring, when an unprecedented influx of families and unaccompanied children from Central America overwhelmed resources on the border. Migrants arrived, turned themselves in to authorities and requested asylum, after word of this option had spread in certain Central American countries. This resulted in much higher numbers of total apprehensions in the late spring and summer months, especially among unaccompanied children.

The annual increases in unauthorized immigrant apprehensions do not jibe with Johnson’s statements that the total number is the lowest in years, especially looking at this chart from his own agency’s report:


(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

But DHS officials said Johnson was referring to the most recent monthly and quarterly apprehensions. When looking at those data, Johnson’s statements check out. In fact, total apprehensions in January 2015 were the lowest monthly total since December 2012, CBP data show. The total number of apprehensions in the first quarter of fiscal 2015 (October 2014 through January 2015) are a lower first-quarter total than in fiscal years 2014 and 2013. Since the spike in 2014, the monthly number of total apprehensions — including the number of unaccompanied minors and families — has decreased.

These monthly and quarterly trends reflect the measures DHS and other agencies have taken to respond to the surge, said Marsha Catron, DHS spokeswoman. And those are the policies Johnson is referring to in his statements.

The overall annual trend still holds that border crossings of unauthorized immigrants are on the rise again, and that the agency faces new challenges responding to the border’s changing dynamics. Even if the fiscal 2014 number were a fluke and DHS was able to respond to the spike, the fiscal 2013 and 2012 numbers still show apprehensions have increased since the record low in fiscal 2011. (Johnson himself has made this point in the past.)

The influx of Central Americans challenges the long-held concern that “they’re catching people but a lot of people are getting through,” because the families and children showed they were arriving to turn themselves in for asylum, said Jeffrey Passel, Pew Research Center senior demographer.

Still, experts cautioned against putting too much emphasis on the annual number — or even the monthly or quarterly figures. Immigration trends are about flows, not raw numbers, they said. It also is important to keep the fiscal 2014 total of 479,371 in context: It is less than one-third of the highest recorded number of crossings in more than 50 years, of 1.64 million apprehensions in 2000. So overall apprehensions are low in comparison to 15 years ago.

The Pinocchio Test

Johnson uses specific measures of CBP numbers to make his point that apprehensions at the southern border are “at the lowest level” in years. He does not specify in his TV interview or written statement that he is referring to monthly and quarterly figures from the first quarter of fiscal 2015, or that he is talking about the measures his agency took to decrease the unprecedented numbers of families and unaccompanied children that came from Central America in spring to summer of 2014. It is almost impossible to glean those details from his vague statements.

Apprehension numbers can be sliced and diced in many ways, and the annual numbers show that apprehensions are on the rise again. It is a stagnated growth, and not anywhere near the record highs 15 years ago. But researchers agree it shows an emerging trend among non-Mexican immigrants that the agency now faces, and that is important context to include in this discussion.

Two Pinocchios

 


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