It is not the first time that a politician has offered these apprehension figures as evidence of getting tough on illegal border crossings. We gave One Pinocchio to Trump in April 2017 when he said immigration was “61 percent down now in terms of illegal people coming in,” and we gave Two Pinocchios to then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in 2015 when he said “apprehensions at the southern border … are now at the lowest levels in years.”
Immigration officials continuously update these figures, and it is not hard to slice and dice them in service of a political narrative. Are apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border “way down,” as Trump says?
Customs and Border Protection reports the number of people who are detained each month trying to enter the United States. The vast majority of these attempts happened at the Southern border, according to detailed agency data going back to 2000.
Trump’s signature campaign promise was an immigration crackdown. During his first year in office, he has pushed for tighter immigration laws and a massive new wall along the border with Mexico. As a result, “the border is in the best shape it’s been in in decades, down 61 percent since the inauguration,” Trump said in a speech on March 21, 2017.
The Department of Homeland Security says Trump’s policies and rhetoric have deterred would-be immigrants from trying to cross the border. Then-DHS spokesman David Lapan said in May that people in Central America “are waiting and watching what happens rather than taking the journey north,” and then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly in March pointed to a “dramatic drop in numbers” since Trump’s inauguration. Kelly is now the White House chief of staff.
Let’s review the data on southern border apprehensions from February to December 2017, an 11-month period that starts with Trump’s first full month in office and ends with the latest available figures. Customs and Border Protection reported that 219,262 people were apprehended trying to cross the southern border.
That is a 48 percent decline from the comparable 11-month period in 2016.
It is worth noting that in April 2017, the number of apprehensions was 11,127, the lowest monthly total since at least 2000. (Customs and Border Protection has records going back to 1925, but a CBP spokesperson said the agency only has annual apprehension totals, not month-by-month breakdowns, for the years before 2000.)
Unless southern border crossings skyrocket in January 2018, Trump’s first year in office is on track to end with fewer than 300,000 apprehensions — a low not seen since fiscal year 1971, according to CBP data. A White House official said this was proof that Trump’s policies were getting results.
But there are a few caveats to keep in mind.
Southern border apprehensions have been declining since their 1.5 million peak in 2000, and experts attribute this to several factors including tougher enforcement efforts post-9/11, decades of investment in border infrastructure and surveillance technology, and the economic downturn that began in 2007.
A big change came in 2005, when Customs and Border Protection imposed tougher penalties “to discourage repeat unauthorized migrant entries and disrupt migrant smuggling networks,” according to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service. “Most people apprehended at the Southwest border are now subject to ‘high consequence’ enforcement outcomes,” the report says.
After reaching their 1.5 million peak in 2000, apprehensions on the southern border declined until 2003, only to spike again in 2004 and 2005, when they reached 1.2 million. At that point, the tougher penalties kicked in; apprehensions declined for the next six consecutive years.
Border-crossing attempts vary by season, and the apprehension figures in many cases show wide fluctuations from month to month or year to year. So it can be hard to pin them down to prove a political point. Trump earned Four Pinocchios in August for claiming repeatedly that “the border’s down 78 percent,” referring to these CBP figures.
The president claimed in a speech in July that “under past administrations, the border didn’t go down; it went up.”
In fact, the CBP data show that over President George W. Bush’s two terms, apprehensions on the southern border declined 39 percent, and over President Barack Obama’s two terms, they declined 15 percent.
“Across a variety of indicators, the United States has substantially expanded border enforcement resources over the last three decades,” the Congressional Research Service said in the report. “Particularly since 2001, such increases include border security appropriations, personnel, fencing and infrastructure, and surveillance technology.”
“Enforcement, along with the 2007 economic downturn in the United States, likely contributed to the drop in unauthorized migration, though the precise share of the decline attributable to enforcement is unknown,” the report added.
Mexicans made up the largest group of people apprehended at the southern border for years, but the demographics changed in 2014, when Central Americans fleeing gang violence, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, began to migrate in waves to the United States seeking asylum.
Although Trump is on track to see a substantial reduction in southern-border apprehensions in his first year, it is important to note that his first year would be measured against a 2016 baseline. Among other reasons, apprehensions surged 24 percent that year as the Central American refugee phenomenon continued.
It is also worth noting that some experts say the number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border is a poor measure of how effective authorities are at enforcing immigration laws.
“For instance, increases in border control effectiveness could well increase the number of apprehensions,” according to the study by the RAND Corporation, which recommended other ways to measure enforcement rates at the border.
“Interestingly, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported annual decreases in apprehensions as evidence of effectiveness, presumably on the theory that decreases reflect fewer crossing attempts, rather than diminished apprehension success rates,” the study says.
Customs and Border Protection, it noted, sometimes tries to have it both ways: “Indeed, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that CBP explained increases in apprehensions made at checkpoints in some border sectors to improved CBP operations and decreases in apprehensions in other sectors to the deterrent effects of improved CBP technologies and increased staffing.”
The Pinocchio Test
As he was approaching his first anniversary as president, Trump said that “we’re way down in the people coming across the border.” The White House and the Department of Homeland Security attribute this decline to the president’s rhetoric and policies on immigration.
According to figures from Customs and Border Protection covering Trump’s first 11 months in office, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are down 48 percent from the comparable 11-month period in 2016. Trump is on track to end his first year in office with fewer than 300,000 apprehensions at the southern border, a low not seen since fiscal year 1971.
But Trump takes perhaps too much credit for this decrease. Apprehensions at the southern border declined overall during both previous administrations and have been on a downward trend for the better part of two decades. The federal government has been investing in border upgrades for nearly 30 years, hardened border controls after 9/11 and imposed tough new penalties for some unauthorized migrants in 2005. Research suggests the 2007 economic downturn dissuaded people who otherwise would have tried to immigrate illegally.
Lastly, focusing on the apprehension figure Trump cites presents a sort of Catch-22. If the number of apprehensions goes down, does it mean that immigrants are staying away or that authorities are not catching them? One study points out that it would be logical to assume that tougher policies would lead to a higher number of apprehensions.
Trump’s claim has merit, but he leaves out important context and earns One Pinocchio.
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