Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

Posts tagged Statistics

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Is the border really “leaking?”

“I see the engine of this immigration ship not working. The bureaucracy is failing. But I also see on the ship that we’ve got a leak — we don’t know who is coming in and out across our borders. If you have a ship that has an engine that is not working and a leak in the bottom, what do you fix first? You fix the leak. My fear is we’re not really enforcing (immigration laws) right now.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois), quoted August 31, 2013.

The Facts:

In fact, we do have a good idea of who is coming in and out across our borders — or at least, a better idea than we have ever had.

1. Who is coming in:

In 2011, Border Patrol estimated that 533,571 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Of these, 84 percent (448,104) were either apprehended or turned back into Mexico.

It is true that Border Patrol has not regularly reported the number of migrants it estimates to have turned back or eluded capture, and no such estimates are yet publicly available for 2012. But the agency publishes decades of data on its apprehensions of migrants, a decent indicator of the overall flow of “who is coming in.”

In 2012, Border Patrol apprehended 356,873 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. That was up slightly from 2011, but still the second-smallest number measured since 1973. According to this indicator (as well as others like migrant surveys and testimonies from shelters), undocumented migration has plummeted rapidly. As recently as 2006, Border Patrol was routinely apprehending a million or more migrants.

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Better technologies may reveal a larger number of migrants who evade capture, especially in remote areas. But still, using current methods the percentage of those who are apprehended appears to be growing, as a December 2012 Government Accountability Office report attests. And recidivism rates — the number of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before — are lower than they have been since measurements began, notes the Congressional Research Service [PDF].

2. Who is coming out:

In eight of the past ten years, including 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) set a new record for the number of undocumented individuals removed [PDF] from the United States. Last year ICE totaled 409,849 removals, up from 165,168 a decade earlier and 43,671 in 1992.

If past years’ proportions are a guide, about two-thirds (perhaps 275,000) of these removed individuals came from Mexico and Central America. Add the number of individuals returned by Border Patrol last year (likely between 250,000 and 300,000), and you get over 525,000 undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America “coming out” of the United States.

That is quite similar to the 533,571 people whom Border Patrol estimated to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2011. With almost the same numbers going “out” as are going “in,” the “leak” to which Rep. Hultgren refers is actually a net of about zero migrants. In fact, after reaching a 40-year low, it could even be seeping outward.

Estimates of the population living here illegally bear that out. It has been declining, from a high of 12.4 million people in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2011.

3. We are “enforcing immigration laws right now.”

In fact, immigration laws are being enforced far more strongly than they ever have. In 2012, CRS reports [PDF], 86 percent of apprehended migrants had to go through some sort of “consequence delivery” (criminal trial, lateral repatriation, formal deportation proceeding, or others) instead of being voluntarily returned. Only 14 percent were voluntarily returned. As recently as 2005, 77 percent were voluntarily returned.

Source: Congressional Research Service (PDF)

We can and should debate the effectiveness, and the humaneness, of these “consequence delivery” measures. But it’s impossible to dispute that they — and “immigration laws” in general — are not being “enforced right now.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under migration border security statistics

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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

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Is Texas unprotected, or just empty?

This infographic comes from the “ProtectOurTexasBorder.com” website maintained by the Texas State Department of Agriculture. The Department’s commissioner, Todd Staples (R), is an outspoken critic (PDF) of the Obama administration’s perceived neglect of border security.

The graphic contends that Texas is being given short shrift by the U.S. Border Patrol. While the other three border states have about 14 Border Patrol agents per mile, there are only 6 agents per mile in Texas.

The facts:

This sounds like a serious disparity — until you consider how sparsely populated Texas’ border zones are. Especially in west Texas — the vast, arid, inhospitable El Paso, Big Bend, and Del Rio sectors — population centers are so distant that cross-border migration, as measured by apprehension statistics (PDF), is a relative trickle.

Add up the populations of all four states’ border counties — easy to do using the Census Department’s website — and you’ll find that while Texas includes 64% of the U.S.-Mexico border, it only includes 34% of the population of all border counties (in 2011, 2.5 million out of a total of 4.9 million people). San Diego County, California and Pima County, Arizona, both have more people than the largest Texas border county (which is El Paso).

When you look at Border Patrol agents per border-county resident, Texas is actually gets more thorough coverage than the rest of the border. Texas border counties have 3.2 Border Patrol agents for each 1,000 residents. The other states’ border counties have 2.1 Border Patrol agents for each 1,000 residents.

The agents-per-mile statistic, on its own, tells us more about how empty Texas’ borderlands are than it tells us about border security policy.

By Adam Isacson

Is Texas unprotected, or just empty?

This infographic comes from the “ProtectOurTexasBorder.com” website maintained by the Texas State Department of Agriculture. The Department’s commissioner, Todd Staples (R), is an outspoken critic (PDF) of the Obama administration’s perceived neglect of border security.

The graphic contends that Texas is being given short shrift by the U.S. Border Patrol. While the other three border states have about 14 Border Patrol agents per mile, there are only 6 agents per mile in Texas.

The facts:

This sounds like a serious disparity — until you consider how sparsely populated Texas’ border zones are. Especially in west Texas — the vast, arid, inhospitable El Paso, Big Bend, and Del Rio sectors — population centers are so distant that cross-border migration, as measured by apprehension statistics (PDF), is a relative trickle.

Add up the populations of all four states’ border counties — easy to do using the Census Department’s website — and you’ll find that while Texas includes 64% of the U.S.-Mexico border, it only includes 34% of the population of all border counties (in 2011, 2.5 million out of a total of 4.9 million people). San Diego County, California and Pima County, Arizona, both have more people than the largest Texas border county (which is El Paso).

When you look at Border Patrol agents per border-county resident, Texas is actually gets more thorough coverage than the rest of the border. Texas border counties have 3.2 Border Patrol agents for each 1,000 residents. The other states’ border counties have 2.1 Border Patrol agents for each 1,000 residents.

The agents-per-mile statistic, on its own, tells us more about how empty Texas’ borderlands are than it tells us about border security policy.

By Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Patrol Statistics Texas Border Security