The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Key parts of the Trump administration’s border rhetoric are wrong, according to the Trump administration

As the government shutdown continues, the Trump administration has been using misleading immigration numbers to make a case for the wall. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

To hear President Trump and his administration tell it, there is an urgent need for a wall on the border with Mexico because [whispers: He promised his base he would build one] of the threat posed by terrorists and drug smugglers, among others. There’s just one problem with that line of argument: Trump’s administration also says that this isn’t really true.

The terrorists

The administration insisted to Congress that the 3,755 known or suspected terrorists who tried to enter the United States in fiscal 2017 meant that a wall was necessary. According to reporting from NBC News on Monday, though, the number of people on the terrorist watch list who were actually stopped at the border with Mexico in the first half of fiscal 2018 was a bit smaller: six. And not all of those were necessarily stopped while trying to enter by crossing at a place without a wall; they may well have been stopped at ports of entry, from where migration into the United States is allowed.

But we already knew that there wasn’t much of a threat posed by terrorists or suspected terrorists entering the country from Mexico because the State Department, in a 2017 report, told us so.

There is “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States,” that report — released under Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson — read.

There’s a 2018 iteration of the report, too, in which the language was changed to better reflect the administration’s policy goals, even if the conclusions were unaltered.

“At year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States,” it reads, then hastily adds that the border “remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit” (although terrorists probably try to enter the country in other ways).

Like … from Canada? In the same six-month period in which authorities on the border with Mexico stopped six people on the terrorist watch list — a list notorious for its misidentifications and inclusion of people unaffiliated with terrorist activity — law enforcement halted 41 people on the border with Canada. Yet there has been no call for a wall across the top of Minnesota.

The drugs

Trump and his team also have linked the need for a wall to the opioid crisis, highlighting drug flow into the country broadly and the import of addictive substances such as heroin and fentanyl specifically.

But, again, the administration also tells us something important about that influx: It generally happens at legal ports of entry.

Here’s former Homeland Security secretary (and former White House chief of staff) John F. Kelly testifying about how drugs enter the United States during a hearing on Capitol Hill in April 2017.

Kelly was asked about metrics that can be used to evaluate border security.

“Another metric would be the amount of — and it mostly comes through ports of entry, which is another discussion that we can certainly have here, but the amount of drugs that come through,” Kelly said.

That echoes testimony from Paul A. Beeson of U.S. Customs and Border Protection shortly after Trump took office.

“The Southwest land border POEs are the major points of entry for illegal drugs, where smugglers use a wide variety of tactics and techniques for concealing drugs,” Beeson said, referring to ports of entry. He came equipped with illustrations, like this one showing drug packages masquerading as watermelons.

The Drug Enforcement Administration agrees. Its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment is explicit in stating that only a portion of the heroin seized on the border with Mexico was seized between ports of entry.

“The majority of the flow is through POVs [privately owned vehicles] entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods,” the report reads — like trucks hauling watermelons.

This makes sense: It’s much easier to try to sneak hundreds of pounds of drugs into the United States by hiding them in one of the tens of thousands of cars crossing the border in a given day than it is to try to haul them on foot through the unprotected desert. In part, as USA Today reported in 2017, this is by design. Existing barriers helped shunt drug smuggling activity to ports of entry, where it can be more easily detected.

The migrants

Trump also insists that there is a crisis on the border, a function of a spike in families seeking entry to the United States, often while making claims of asylum. It is true that there are a record number of asylum seekers waiting for adjudication in the U.S. legal system. But it does not seem to be true that there is a huge surge in attempts to enter the country illegally between ports of entry.

A report from the Department of Homeland Security released under Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen includes a chart showing the drop-off in successful illegal entries between established border checkpoints.

That data ends in 2016, but there’s not much to suggest that things have changed. In fiscal 2016, there were about 409,000 apprehensions of people trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In fiscal 2018, there were about 397,000. In 2016, according to Homeland Security data, about 78,000 family units were apprehended at the border, compared with 107,000 last year. The big increase came from 2017 to 2018, after a big drop in those figures shortly after Trump took office.

As we’ve noted before, though, many of those family units crossing illegally quickly turn themselves in to authorities to make asylum claims, claims that can be made only on U.S. soil. The picture Trump presents is of immigrants sneaking into the country to avoid detection, when often the reality is the opposite: They seek out people who can accept their claims.

On Tuesday, Trump will address the nation to make an argument for a wall on the border. It will be interesting to see what data and information he cites in making that case: his administration’s or his administration’s.