The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to mislead with statistics, DHS Secretary Nielsen edition

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a White House news briefing on Monday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Conscripted by the White House to answer questions about the change in immigration policy that has resulted in a surge of children being separated from their families, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen denied that the children were being used as political pawns when asked by a reporter at the daily news briefing.

“The kids are being used as pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers,” Nielsen said.

She repeated a data point that she had mentioned earlier, a data point that Nielsen suggested necessitated taking a zero-tolerance approach to families arriving at the border.

“Again, let’s just pause to think about this statistic: 314 percent increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit,” she said. “Those are traffickers, those are smugglers, that is MS-13, those are criminals, those are abusers.”

The White House liked this line so much that it tweeted it out — but there’s important context missing. Those may be smugglers and abusers, but they are also only a tiny fraction of the family units apprehended during the period at issue.

A DHS representative provided The Washington Post with the hard numbers behind Nielsen’s statistic. There were 46 cases of fraud — “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units” — in fiscal 2017, the period from October 2016 through September 2017. In the first five months of 2018, there were 191 cases.

That is an increase of 315 percent.

But is that a significant increase or not? It depends on the pool of families approaching the border. If you have $500 in a bank account, paying $191 in fees as opposed to $46 is a big jump. If you have $5 million in the bank account, it’s a bit less of a bite.

DHS releases monthly data on the number of family units apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was an increase in that figure in March and April that apparently helped spur the new emphasis on curtailing family arrivals.

So we know the size of each pool. There were 75,622 family units apprehended at the border in fiscal 2017, and 31,102 in the first five months of this fiscal year.

How many alleged smugglers are in that pool? Here, let’s visualize it.

Even given the increased number of alleged smugglers this fiscal year and the decreased number of family units, those smugglers, those traffickers, those MS-13 members make up only 0.61 percent of the total number of family units apprehended at the border. In other words, for every 1,000 families that approached the border in the first five months of this fiscal year, only six allegedly involved individuals pretending to be a child’s parents. The percentage of alleged smugglers in fiscal 2017 was smaller, at 0.1 percent.

It’s not clear that all of those alleged smugglers were at the southwestern border. It’s not clear if more alleged smugglers are usually caught at the beginning of fiscal years. It’s not clear that all of those caught in fiscal 2018 were criminal smugglers or traffickers. What is clear is that they made up a very small percentage of the total population of family units.

We noted Monday morning that the argument that separating children from parents to catch smugglers had been re-embraced by the administration. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions first announced the family-separation policy, he predicated it explicitly on fears of smuggling.

“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law,” he said. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

What Sessions didn’t say in his speech is that, if you’re one of the 994 families that actually consists of a parent and a child, that isn’t a smuggler — your child will be separated from you anyway.