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Five myths about the U.S.-Mexico border

Migrants in a caravan from Central America gathered at the Mexican border last week, looking through the fence into the United States. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)

The remaining members of the much-discussed caravan of Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, last weekend to seek asylum in the United States. The event, and President Trump’s reaction to it, set off a new round of debate on the management and security of the U.S.-Mexico border. In part, it’s a serious conversation about how to respond to migration trends, including fewer economic migrants from Mexico and more asylum seekers from Central America. But it is also laced with political rhetoric that is not always firmly grounded in the truth. Here are five prevalent myths about border crossings.

Myth No. 1

The border is out of control.

Trump has worked with border-state governors to deploy National Guard troops to the region, adding literal boots on the ground to the other military metaphors used to describe the situation: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during a visit to El Paso, declared the border “ground zero,” a “beachhead against the cartels,” echoing retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s 2011 “strategic military assessment,” which described conditions along the border as “tantamount to living in a war zone .” The White House calls the border porous, saying that “with our current laws and resources, we cannot stop illegal aliens from crossing,” and polls show that most Americans think the border is not secure.

Such language suggests high levels of violence in U.S. border communities, but FBI statistics I have analyzed for a forthcoming report for the Mexico Institute show that from 2011 to 2015, all but one of the 23 U.S. counties along the border had violent-crime rates lower than the national average for similar counties, a finding that echoes previous analyses.

In some ways, the border is porous — more than 300,000 people were apprehended last year for crossing into the country illegally. But what does it mean to have a secure border? The number of Border Patrol agents has increased more than fourfold since the early 1990s, and that 300,000 figure is the lowest recorded since 1971, meaning that the border is as secure as it has been in nearly five decades. Without a nationally agreed-upon way of measuring border security, we are stuck in a political debate as much about semantics as substance.

Myth No. 2

A border wall would stem the opioid epidemic.

Trump offers a border wall as a solution to the skyrocketing number of opioid-related deaths around the country. “Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border, where eventually the Democrats will agree with us and build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” he said in a speech in New Hampshire in March. Others, including the Border Patrol union, agree that a wall would help stem the flow of drugs. Hector Garza, a border agent, told Fox News recently that “we definitely need a physical barrier that’s going to save American lives.”

But the top causes of opioid-related deaths in 2016 were, in order, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, prescription opioids and heroin. A large proportion of fentanyl is shipped by mail or express carrier directly from China. Some is also trafficked through Mexico, but usually in vehicles through official crossings rather than in remote areas where a wall might complicate smugglers’ plans. Prescription opioids are produced and shipped through legal means. Finally, although heroin trafficking has evolved over the past decade to enter the United States mainly through Mexico, that drug, too, is primarily moved in vehicles through official crossings. Security improvements at ports of entry and cooperation with Mexican officials may contribute to a comprehensive anti-opioid strategy, but a border wall would not.

Myth No. 3

Border enforcement does not curtail illegal crossings.

For decades, growing border security spending failed to reverse the rising tide of unauthorized immigration. A 2006 Council on Foreign Relations report summed up the research at the time, answering the question: “Does increased investment in border enforcement reduce illegal immigration?” with a succinct, “Not really.” Researchers like anthropologist Jason De León noted that instead of stopping migrants, tighter security had a “balloon effect — you grab one area and the flow goes to another area.”

Enforcement does push migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas. But U.S. border officials have become increasingly effective in detaining those seeking to cross the border illicitly, as demonstrated by economists Bryan Roberts and John Whitley. And surveys show that Mexican migrants apprehended and returned to Mexico have become much less likely to attempt to reenter the United States, with the share saying they’d try again falling from 95 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2015, according to a Migration Policy Institute report. Economic and demographic shifts during that period account for some of the change, but so does enforcement, in particular the fact that migrants apprehended at the border are now much less likely to be simply dropped off on the other side and more likely to face formal deportation proceedings.

Myth No. 4

Terrorist groups are exploiting a porous border.

In 2015, reports emerged claiming that the Islamic State had established a camp outside Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. The previous year, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R), whose congressional district includes San Diego, claimed that “at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas.”

Both of these assertions were quickly debunked. There has never been a successful terrorist attack on the United States involving the crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, as the State Department has reported, Mexico has cooperated closely with the United States on counterterrorism issues, and there is “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” An analysis of travel in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks by Kathleen Smarick and Gary LaFree of the University of Maryland shows that most travel is through airports and seaports rather than across U.S. land borders. All of this means that large flows of migrants over the southern border do not necessarily generate significant terrorism risks.

Myth No. 5

Mexico's border laws are strong, and ours are weak.

A new myth has emerged from the recent drama around the caravan of Central American migrants seeking asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. In April, Trump tweeted, “Our Border Laws are very weak while those of Mexico & Canada are very strong.” He followed that tweet with another the next day, saying, “The Caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico.” And it’s true that Mexico has become an important partner of the United States in managing Central American migration; it gives a growing number of refugee visas and deports large numbers of migrants before they arrive at the U.S. border.

Trump’s statements, however, miss the mark on several counts. Mexico passed a major overhaul of its immigration code in 2011, seeking to limit the discretionary nature of enforcement, which had served as a tool of corruption, and to strengthen the protection of migrants’ human rights. It was a pro-migrant reform, and, implementation aside, Mexico’s immigration laws are far from hawkish.

As for U.S. immigration laws being weak, that is hard to square with an immigration and border security system that detains and removes hundreds of thousands of people from the country each year. The Trump administration cites flaws that allow unaccompanied minors and some asylum seekers to be placed with family members or paroled, sometimes for years, while their cases are processed. But rather than a weak legal framework, the United States has an under-resourced asylum and immigration court system. Asylum applications have more than quadrupled over the past decade, causing a backlog of more than 300,000 cases.

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