The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

5 reasons Trump’s ‘immigration crisis’ is a made-up one

From birthright citizenship to the military at the border, President Trump is exaggerating his power. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

President Trump delivered a speech Thursday that the White House billed as his plan to address the nation’s “immigration crisis." The speech detailed a plan to make it harder for migrants to claim asylum, and marked the latest escalation in a clearly concerted effort to make the 2018 midterm elections about fear of undocumented immigrants.

The peak of that effort came Wednesday night in the form of a racially charged, Willie Horton-style ad. Trump has labeled the caravan headed to the Southern border an “invasion” and sent thousands of troops to deal with it. He’s talked about sending as many as 15,000 troops — more than the people in the caravan — and also (rather unseriously) revoking birthright citizenship via executive action.

The problem? No matter what definition you use for “crisis,” the current situation on our border struggles to meet it.

Let’s count the ways.

1. Illegal border crossings

Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show illegal border crossings have risen slightly in recent months and are greater than last year. The administration has repeatedly emphasized this — reportedly spurred by Trump’s anger about the situation.

But the number of apprehensions and people deemed inadmissible over the past year — and even now — is unremarkable when you compare it to the past five fiscal years. This year is the red line:

What’s more, even the estimates of 50,000 monthly border apprehensions we’ve seen in a few months this year is a fraction of where that number has been for most of this century. And the current number of annual apprehensions is also lower than at any point since about 1970, according to

2. The number of undocumented immigrants

The numbers above are only for those apprehended at the border. So the logic follows: What about those who aren’t being apprehended? Those are the ones most likely to reside illegally in the United States, after all.

Well, a combination of border apprehensions, deportations and people returning to their countries of their own volition in recent years has actually meant the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has dropped in most recent years. The estimated number dropped from 12.2 million in 2007 to 11.3 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some recent years featured a slight uptick, and we don’t yet have data for 2017 and 2018. But the border-apprehension data above suggest the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States can’t be rising much, if at all.

3. The recently immigrated

Not only has the number of undocumented immigrants been dropping, but they are increasingly not the newly arriving criminals that Trump warns of. Pew data showed, as of 2014, just 14 percent of them had been in the United States fewer than five years.

In other words, the undocumented population is increasingly a well-established one which, while not living in the United States legally, aren’t the people supposedly sent by Mexico and Central American governments to unleash crime, rape and other mayhem. Recent arrivals are declining both as a percentage of the undocumented population and in real numbers.

4. Crime

Any undocumented immigrant regardless of longevity, of course, could commit such crimes. But data suggest they don’t — at least not at the same rates as native-born Americans.

While violent gangs such as MS-13 do exist, the violent crime rate for undocumented immigrants is lower than for the population as a whole, as many, including The Post’s Christopher Ingraham, have written.

The data also showed that places with higher percentages of undocumented immigrants tended to have lower crime rates.

In addition, as The Post’s Philip Bump has written, the percentage of noncitizens in federal prisons has been dropping in recent years, and only about 1 percent of federal prisoners are noncitizens convicted of non-immigration-related offenses.

5. The caravan

Okay, even if you set aside ALL of the above, what about the caravan? Trump has been calling it an “invasion” of the United States for a while now. He’s even sending thousands of troops to the border, ostensibly to protect the homeland. Regardless of what preceded it, couldn’t that be considered a “crisis?”

Well, there is very little reason it will be an invasion, even if it aspired to be.

The first problem is that these people are traveling for weeks from Honduras, at which point it would be very difficult for them to invade anyone. The second is that most of them probably won’t even make it that far, given that caravans like this tend to peter out along a long and arduous journey.

And the last reason is that this caravan, like previous ones, is almost definitely intended not to immigrate illegally, but to request asylum. The last time we had one of these earlier this year, 1,500 people started the journey from Southern Mexico, about 400 requested asylum, and just 122 were apprehended trying to cross the border illegally.

This caravan is bigger, and it may turn out differently, but there’s little reason to believe those troops will truly be needed to repel an “invasion.”