President Donald Trump’s vision of the U.S. southwestern border verges on the apocalyptic.
“Caravans are heading here,” he claims. “Deadly ravages of drugs, gangs and crime [are] pouring across our border,” while legal loopholes allow in murderers and thieves who have “transformed once-peaceful neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
Never mind the studies showing that illegal immigrants commit crimes at rates lower than the native-born population, and that legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than people born in the U.S.
And ignore, for the moment, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own assessment that the vast majority of drugs are smuggled not across the border but through crossing checkpoints and by mail or sea.
If you want to see whether we truly “have a crisis at the southern border,” as Trump’s exiled Svengali Steve Bannon put it this week, look instead at the historical record of border apprehensions.
What’s notable is how under control the southwestern border is today compared to the past.
Admittedly, these statistics don't actually show the number of people entering the U.S. illegally — if you could accurately measure how many people were sneaking in, they wouldn’t have gotten by you in the first place.
But apprehensions serve as a generally agreed-upon proxy. In 2000, the U.S. nabbed about 1.6 million illegal border-crossers; in 2017, the number was down to 304,000, the lowest since the early 1970s.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen likes to use the unusually low 2017 number to argue the U.S. is facing a big spike this year that demands drastic action. Hence the new zero-tolerance policy to prosecute all illegal crossings, and the ensuing heart-wrenching separation of apprehended parents and children, designed to “deter” future family journeys.
Claiming that the border is out of control also serves to justify Trump’s demands that Congress fund his multi-billion-dollar border wall.
But in fact, apprehensions and denials at the border in fiscal 2018 are running at about the average for the previous five years. And as the chart shows, over the course of this decade apprehensions have stabilized at below 500,000. That’s especially remarkable given the revival in U.S. economic growth, which has served to draw undocumented migrant workers in the past.
The near-doubling of border agents from 2004 to 2013 doubtless improved border security. (Note, however, that apprehensions also plunged during the economic slowdown of 2001-02, during which the number of border agents barely rose.) What matters, though, is the relatively low level compared with not just the 2000-2010 period, but from the mid-1970s.
You could reduce the levels further, of course, but at what cost? Stepping up the prosecution, jailing and deportation of border-busters is expensive. One study put the cost of incarcerating migrants for illegal entry at $7 billion from 2005 to 2015. That’s money that could have gone toward stopping the flow of drugs, for instance. The daily cost to detain an adult was about $135 a day; detaining families and children can cost several times that. (Poor planning for the enforcement surge has also ratcheted up costs.)
One of the two bills before Congress this week would appropriate more than $16 billion to build Trump’s wall. Those billions might be more effectively spent in addressing the factors that drive Central Americans to flee north in the first place. The U.S. could, for example, work with Central American countries to internally relocate those threatened by gang or domestic violence.
That’s not to say that returning to the status quo ante makes sense, either. Efforts to curb the filing of asylum claims that are less likely to conform to the law make sense. So does concluding a “safe third country” agreement with Mexico that would allow the U.S. to send some non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border.
Heck, if the Trump administration and the Republican Party really wanted to discourage illegal border crossings, they would impose and enforce a nationwide E-Verify system to prevent them from getting jobs.
Sadly, the brutalities and stupidities of this administration’s zero-sum, zero-tolerance policies have diverted attention from such possibilities, distorted public debate, and made bipartisan cooperation less likely. When it comes to immigration, this president prefers to traffic in fears, not facts.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org