The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans see an ‘invasion’ at the border. But what does that mean?

Border Patrol agents process migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border June 24 in Yuma, Ariz. (Eric Thayer for The Washington Post)

In February and March, as Russia prepared to invade and then invaded Ukraine, the word “invasion” appeared on Fox News at least 2,400 times each month. As developments in the war were surpassed by other news stories, mentions of the term dropped: about 700 times in April and under 400 in May. But then last month, the word jumped back up, crossing the 400-mark once again.

Why? While CNN and MSNBC had matched Fox’s mentions of “invasion” earlier this year, they didn’t in July. What happened?

Fox News had turned its attention to a different “invasion”: the one it said was occurring at the United States border with Mexico. About half of the uses of “invasion” on Fox News occurred within the context of either the border or the word “immigration.”

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This idea that the United States is facing an “invasion” of migrants has gained popularity broadly on the political right. Candidates running in Republican primaries, such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, are using the increased number of migrants stopped at the border over the past two years as a pitch to voters. Lake promised to issue a “declaration of invasion” should she win in November, an action with unclear policy ramifications but obvious political ones.

On Thursday morning, NPR released new polling conducted by Ipsos showing that this language is broadly accepted by Americans. More than half of respondents to the poll said that it was “completely” or “somewhat” true that the United States was experiencing an “invasion” — including a plurality of Democrats. More than half of Republicans said the statement was “completely true.”

But here we get into tricky, if familiar, terrain. What do we mean when we say an “invasion”?

To many observers — probably some of you reading this article — this is a silly question. It means that millions of people are trying to cross the border, of course. And in very broad strokes, that’s true. Since January 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has logged more than 3 million encounters at the border.

But, already, perceptions come into play. Is stopping 3 million people at the border actually a bad thing, if you’re worried about the number of migrants coming to the United States? It’s like the repeated and deeply odd complaints from (mostly Republican) legislators about the scale of drug enforcement at the border. When Donald Trump was president, the Republican Party touted drug seizures as a mark of border security. Under President Biden, it’s somehow a failure.

Or take this tweet from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.):

While stopping more people is an indicator that more people are likely seeking entry to the United States, isn’t it good that they are stopped if your goal is to limit entry? How is it an invasion if the purported “invaders” — to use that loaded, pejorative term — are being stopped when they try to come in?

As I’ve written before, the figures cited by Blackburn are also misleading in their own right. For example, an enormous number of those stopped at the border are then quickly removed from the country under a policy introduced by Trump, purportedly as an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since January 2021, 52 percent of those stopped at the southern border were removed from the United States in short order.

What’s more, that’s part of the reason that the number of encounters is so high! People who are removed from the United States often quickly turn around and try to enter again — and are often again stopped. CBP estimates that around 27 percent of those stopped at the border in fiscal 2021 were repeat offenders. If that holds for this year as well, the distribution of encounters since January 2021 looks something like this.

This is an estimate, since not everyone who is stopped more than once was a subject of removal. But it gives a sense of how the top-line number of 3.1 million misrepresents what’s happening at the border.

The sense that politicians and media outlets often try to give is that millions of people arrive at the border, and then millions of people flood into the country. Those reports about migrants being shuttled around the country give a sense that those millions of arrivals are somehow translating into a steady stream of new migrants into various communities.

In reality, relatively few of those stopped at the border are released into the country. If we split up the pool of encounters another way, we see that less than a quarter of those stopped at the border end up being released, either through a “notice to appear” for an immigration hearing or after being released on parole or other alternatives to detention.

“About a million people, since Biden took office, have been able to access the asylum process, have been released into the country in some form or another,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council told me in a phone call Thursday. His figure includes people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then released. In most cases, mind you, they are being released to await a legal hearing that will often result in their being slated for deportation. (Most migrants do show up for those hearings, incidentally.)

A million people since January 2021 is a lot, certainly, but it is not exactly an unprecedented number — not a “record” as Blackburn would put it. From 1990 to 2005, Reichlin-Melnick said, the average annual increase in undocumented immigrants was near that level even in a system where migration was more cyclical and centered on agricultural seasons.

This raises another question: How many migrants are entering the country without being detected? This is always a rejoinder when one points out that stopping drugs isn’t a bad thing. Well, how many drugs aren’t being stopped?

For migrants, government data offers an answer. Rates of apprehension are much higher now than they used to be.

The Department of Homeland Security offers two metrics to estimate how many of those who should be stopped at the border actually are. The first is an observational estimate: how many people are observed entering without being stopped. The other is a modeled estimate, a statistical assessment of what percentage of border crossers are stopped. In the past decade, that latter figure has increased dramatically.

“In 2006, when there were 650,000 estimated got-aways” — the term for migrants who are spotted but not stopped — “there were an additional 1.5 million successful unlawful entries on top of that that were never even detected,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “Today, that is just not the case. The border is blanketed in cameras and surveillance technologies.” Not to mention the increase in barriers both under Trump and following the passage of a law expanding barriers in 2006.

“They now say they detect more than 90 percent of the people crossing the border,” he added.

That data can be used to compile a count of how many people were both apprehended and estimated to have entered the country unlawfully without being stopped. Reichlin-Melnick’s organization did just that.

Apprehensions are up — but few of those apprehended wind up released in the United States. Some people cross the border illegally and aren’t detected — but that happens much less frequently than it used to.

“Even though we are at record apprehensions,” Reichlin-Melnick said, “we are not anywhere near record crossings.”

So what’s the invasion? That more people are being released into the United States than in recent years? That more people are being kicked out of the United States than normally happens?

The answer, of course, is that “invasion” is an inherently subjective word, influenced by how people talk about the situation at the border. That’s the other finding from the NPR-Ipsos poll: Public sentiment on immigration has soured since Trump left office, in part because public opinion often moves in the opposite direction from public policy. In part, though, it’s a function of how the recent increase in apprehensions is framed by people such as the senator from Tennessee and the Arizona gubernatorial candidate.

Call something an “invasion” enough, and people will begin to believe it.