“As you know, the border was a tremendous problem and now close to 80 percent stoppage.”
— President Trump, remarks at a Cabinet meeting, July 31, 2017
“You know, the border’s down 78 percent. Under past administrations, the border didn’t go down, it went up. But if it went down 1 percent, there was like this was a great thing. Down 78 percent.”
— Trump, speech in New York, July 28, 2017
Curbing illegal immigration is a major promise by President Trump, and he frequently touts successes in doing so. While Southwest border crossings have, indeed, declined as a result of Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not nearly as dramatic as 78 or 80 percent. Moreover, Trump now says illegal immigration went up under previous administrations — which is false.
Let’s dig in.
Border activity bucked seasonal trends in the fall and winter of 2016. Usually, there’s a seasonal lull through winter months, before apprehensions of undocumented immigrants start climbing back up. Apprehensions tend to peak from March to May, before coming down again in the late summer and through the fall.
Yet in fall 2016, apprehensions kept increasing. People rushed to enter the country, which was an indication that Trump’s rhetoric may have sent a message to people who had planned to cross the border from Mexico, to do so before the election. Experts say Trump’s anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric played a role.
After November 2016, the number of apprehensions and people “deemed inadmissible” at the border declined rapidly. In April 2017, the monthly number of apprehensions and people deemed inadmissible reached the lowest point since at least 2000, Customs and Border Protection data show.
Since April, however, apprehensions started climbing again. This increase is consistent with seasonal trends. (The light blue line represents fiscal 2017 in the CBP chart below.)
It’s unclear exactly what data Trump is using to claim a decline of up to 80 percent in border crossings. The White House did not respond to our inquiry.
His figure is consistent with the change in apprehensions data from the highest point in fiscal 2017 (November 2016, at 47,210) to the lowest point (April 2017, at 11,126), which is a 76.4 percent decline. That is a cherry-picked figure that shows the biggest possible decline in a given fiscal year — including the months before he took office. When you compare the data from his first full month in office (February 2017) with the latest data (June 2017), the decline is between 8 and 14 percent.
Another way to look at this data is using year-over-year trends. From June 2016 to June 2017, the number of people apprehended or deemed inadmissible declined 52.6 percent. As FactCheck.org noted, it’s still a significant decline, but not as high as 80 percent.
Clearly, monthly figures are quite susceptible to cherry-picking. So let’s take a broader look at the data.
This shows Southwest border apprehensions have steadily declined since their peak at more than 1.6 million people in fiscal 2000. There have been temporary spikes since 2000 — most recently, there was an uptick in apprehensions of Central American unaccompanied children and their families in 2016, after a significant drop in 2015. The fiscal 2016 annual apprehensions are back down to early-1970s levels.
So Trump is incorrect that “under past administrations, the border didn’t go down, it went up,” and that “the border was a tremendous problem” before his administration.
There are many reasons for this decline, including economic and work conditions on both sides of the border. In recent years, there has been a shift in border migration. The number of Mexicans caught trying to cross the border illegally is dropping, and the number of families and children fleeing rampant violence and crime in Central America is increasing.
The Pinocchio Test
When Trump debuted this talking point, we awarded just One Pinocchio for his use of CBP data. He was largely correct about the large declines, but his apples-to-oranges method led to numbers that were slightly off.
But apprehensions are going up again. His figure now reflects the biggest possible decline even though it measures figures from before he became president, and does not use the most up-to-date data. While monthly and annual figures are susceptible to cherry-picking, the decline under his presidency is as low as 8 percent, and the decline in June 2017 compared with June 2016 is 52.6 percent. That places his claim at the Three-Pinocchio range.
Then this talking point spins out of control when Trump falsely says border activity actually went up, not down, before his administration. In reality, illegal border crossings are back down to early-1970s levels, and apprehensions have steadily declined since their peak in 2000, with temporary upticks here and there. Trump earns Four Pinocchios.
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