Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

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Is illegal immigration “rising steadily?”

Illegal immigration has risen steadily since the 1980s. While our research shows that new illegal entries have slackened somewhat since 2007, there are signs that the tide could be shifting again. According to numbers just released by CBP, in 2012 southwest border apprehensions, which the agency has used as an indicator of the number of illegal crossings, went up by nine percent.

— From the testimony of Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, given in a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on February 5, 2013 [PDF].

The Facts:

Three statements here need correction or further explanation.

1. Illegal immigration has not “risen steadily since the 1980s.” Border Patrol migrant apprehension data show this clearly. While nobody knows how many migrants are actually crossing the border, the number of those whom Border Patrol captures are our best indicator of whether the overall number is going up or down.

Migrant apprehensions are significantly fewer now than they were in the 1980s. In fact, they’re at their lowest level since 1972. The following graph of apprehensions is drawn from Border Patrol data since 1960, available in this table [PDF] on CBP’s website.

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2. New illegal entries have not “slackened somewhat since 2007.” If apprehensions are any measure, they have fallen precipitously, as the above graph shows. Apprehensions dropped a remarkably steep 58 percent since 2007, and 69 percent since 2005.

3. In perspective, the increase in apprehensions from 2011 to 2012 is too small to indicate a trend: 7 percent at the U.S.-Mexico border, and 9 percent throughout the country. The 2011 apprehensions figure was the lowest Border Patrol recorded since 1972; the 2012 figure was the second-lowest that Border Patrol recorded since 1972. There is no way to tell whether last year’s increase — which is almost too small to be visible on the above graph — is a blip in an overall downward trend, or a sign of a “shifting tide.”

It is clear, though, that the number of Mexican migrants is still dropping. Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexican citizens (blue in the below graph) dropped again in 2012, for the eighth straight year. Would-be migrants from Mexico are clearly being discouraged from attempting the trip by tougher measures in the United States, a sluggish U.S. economy, greater growth in Mexico, and the alarming security situation in Mexico’s border communities.

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All of last year’s increase in apprehensions was due to a near-doubling of migrants from other countries, mainly Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “Other than Mexican” citizens made up 27 percent of all apprehended migrants in 2012, a far greater proportion than any other shown in Border Patrol’s records since 2000. (Border Patrol supplies these records online for apprehended Mexican citizens [PDF] and “other than Mexican” citizens [PDF].)

Nearly all of this increase in non-Mexican apprehensions occurred in south-east Texas, even as other Border Patrol sectors saw fewer apprehensions last year.

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It is not clear why would-be Central American migrants are not being deterred by the same factors that are forcing down Mexican citizens’ migration. The poverty and violence currently suffered in Central America’s “northern triangle” countries is the most likely explanation.

Whatever the reason, the picture is complicated. And claims that migration is inexorably rising — as in the testimony cited here — don’t help us to understand it.

Filed under Migration Statistics