As previously pointed out, the Trump administration has made a practice of distorting data to justify its draconian immigration policies. And that practice continued late last week, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put out a press release citing statistics on migration across the southwest border. The release points to data showing an 18 percent combined decrease from May to June in border “apprehensions” – people stopped when trying to cross while avoiding designated immigration checkpoints – and “inadmissibles” – those turned away at checkpoints after presenting themselves there. It then attributes this decrease to the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which requires all adults who are caught crossing illegally to be referred for criminal prosecution. This has led to the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents since the policy was implemented in April. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have said, the purpose of family separation is to deter any potential future migrants from attempting to cross the border.
There are a couple of problems with how DHS links cause and effect. First, data from the past few years shows that southwestern apprehensions and detentions regularly decrease from May to June. In four out of the past five years, when there was no “zero-tolerance” policy, and which were all years when Barack Obama was president, southwestern apprehensions and detentions also went down from May to June. In two of those years, they went down by nearly 20 percent (17.5 percent in 2016; 5.1 percent in 2015; 3.3 percent in 2014; and 19.2 percent in 2013). There’s an explanation that might help account for this particular decrease better than Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy: It’s hotter in the summer months, which makes people less likely to attempt crossing the desert then.
Even setting that aside, the data presented isn’t a good indicator of deterrence. Being denied admission at a port of entry isn’t a crime, and about 20 percent of the baseline number against which DHS counted the decrease fit in that inadmissible category. This population isn’t the one being targeted by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which is directed at “criminal illegal entry.” That’s backed up by Customs and Border Protection’s own assertions. It said on July 9 that out of the 5,298 families who presented themselves at southwestern ports of entry from May 6 to July 2, only seven faced what is presumably the most severe deterrent – family separation. (Four of those cases involved adults trying to run through a checkpoint, and three involved adults’ criminal convictions.)
What’s more, family-unit related apprehensions – the types of cases most likely to result in family separation due to “zero-tolerance” – only decreased from 9,485 to 9,449, or 0.4 percent, from May to June. That’s hardly evidence that the administration’s practice of family separation caused any drops in attempted illegal border-crossings. Indeed, as Adam Cox and Ryan Goodman have convincingly argued – and as cited recently by a federal court reaffirming an order limiting the detention of migrant children to 20 days – there is little proof that harsh immigration detention policies have had any deterrent effects.
This isn’t to say that the Trump administration’s hard-line stances and searing xenophobic rhetoric haven’t affected the flow of people into the United States. Instead, it is clear that this specific data set doesn’t prove the cause and effect, which DHS is touting. But given that misleading the public about data is now par for the course, sophistry seems a key tool in this administration’s political arsenal, especially when it comes to immigration.