The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came out with a press release late last week, proclaiming that the “number of illegal border crossers” at the southwest border had more than tripled in April 2018 in comparison to April 2017. For the second month in a row, according to DHS, “we have seen more than 50,000 individuals try to illegally enter the United States.” Despite DHS’s breathless claims to the contrary, the numbers don’t demonstrate a “continuing security crisis along our southwest border.” Rather, DHS’s blatant misrepresentation of newly released Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data is typical of the agency’s efforts to re-make data in support of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. It follows the bad example set by the misleading and inaccurate January 2018 report issued by DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ), which cherry-picked information to find ways to blame foreign nationals and foreign-born Americans (especially Muslims) for all terrorism in the U.S., and which has prompted the Brennan Center and others to file a lawsuit under the Data Quality Act.
A fundamental problem with DHS’s security crisis claims is that they conflate “apprehensions” with the number of people actually crossing the border illegally. Granted, apprehensions could be used as a loose comparative metric of illegal border crossings if all other major variables that might affect that number stayed the same over time. But things have changed: for example, denied funding for his wall, Trump in April authorized funding for hundreds of National Guard troops who were deployed to the border to assist immigration enforcement through the use of drones, helicopters and other monitoring capacities. Moreover, the CBP itself has been increasingly aggressive in enforcement. In fact, given the significant addition of resources and effort, it would be more surprising if there wasn’t an increase in apprehensions.
The press release also attempts to pull a sly bait-and-switch: immediately after telling us that illegal border crossings are up, it tells us that “more than 50,000 individuals tr[ied] to illegally enter the United States.” But all 50,000 did not actually enter the U.S. illegally, because the total number includes 12,690 people who were deemed inadmissible when they asked to be admitted through ports of entry at the border. Folks lining up to have their passports checked at the border is hardly the stuff of a “security crisis.”
Finally, the context regarding the tripling of numbers between April 2017 and April 2018 that DHS fails to mention is critical here. The April 2017 numbers were not only the lowest for any month of 2017, and not only the lowest of any April in at least the last six years, but the lowest number of any month for at least the last six years, making the comparison an outlier at best. Nor is the April 2018 number a particularly alarming spike in the broader view. April numbers for both 2013 and 2014 were higher than April 2018 by thousands.
All this is to say that these numbers do not support an assertion of an enlarging “crisis,” despite DHS’s attempt to manufacture one. Fear-mongering over immigration is obviously not new for this administration, nor is the use of “alternative facts.” But illegal border crossings are important topics, with often serious consequences for both U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike, and they are topics worthy of fact-based, sober debate. If your policies depend on distortion to be justified, they probably aren’t policies worth keeping.