Trump has been declaring a border crisis since before he announced his presidential candidacy, and he’s now insisting that our national security depends on the construction of a border wall to stem the “invasion” of dangerous immigrants and the flow of dangerous drugs.
Is Trump correct? Has there been a dramatic influx of unlawful entries through our southwest border recently? Do most of the undocumented immigrants entering the country through southwest border have criminal records? Are drugs flooding into our country through the southwest border? And finally, if the answer to all of these questions are yes, will a border wall solve these problems?
How many undocumented immigrants are currently living in the United States?
There were 10.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2016 (the most recent data available). That’s down from a high of 12.2 million in 2007. Although undocumented immigrants enter the United States every year, since 2007 more are leaving than staying.
How many undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States are Mexican?
Many people assume “undocumented immigrants” is synonymous with “Mexican.” It isn’t. Among the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, only 5.4 million are from Mexico (down from 6.9 million in 2007), the majority of whom have been living in the country for 15 to 20 years, having been recruited by the agricultural and meat-processing industries. Thus, Mexicans comprise of only about 51% of the entire U.S. undocumented immigrant population.
The balance of undocumented immigrants are from other countries/regions, such as Asia (16%), El Salvador (6%), Guatemala (3%), Honduras (3%), and Africa (3%).
How did they get here?
The majority of undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States did not cross the southwestern border. Rather, they overstayed their visa (student visa, traveler’s visa, conference visa, etc.). This didn’t used to be the case, but in the last few decades visa over-stayers have been inching up, while cross-border immigration has been declining (likely because of changes in our immigration laws that allowed for increased border security).
In fact, 2007 is the year that overstaying a visa became a more prevalent method of living in the United States without documentation than crossings the border, which makes sense since this is the same year that undocumented immigration began to decline.
How many undocumented immigrants attempt to illegally enter the United States on a monthly basis?
The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States is a different issue than how many immigrants are apprehended at the border every month, but they’re often confused when people are throwing statistics around in defense of their positions on border security.
Every month between 30,000 and 60,000 people are apprehended while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States through the southwest border. Many of these immigrants are seeking asylum, but since U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t reflect asylum statistics in its apprehension data, determining the number of immigrants apprehensions who later declare their intention to seek asylum is difficult.
Here’s the total number of apprehensions for unlawful entry at the southwest border per year for the last several years. What you’ll note from both the numbers and the graph below is that the number of apprehensions have been declining for quite some time (these numbers include both apprehensions and those deemed inadmissible):
2005: 1.2 million
* Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy was implemented in 2018 and asylum-seekers entering through Ports of Entry began getting arrested, which partially explains the increase in border apprehensions. The other reason for the increase in 2018 is the increase in families seeking asylum due to escalating violence in Central America.
Here are a few graphs for you visual folks. The first one shows the trend of apprehensions between 2000 and 2013, and the second spans from 1990 to 2018, and breaks it down by administration.
The trend is interesting because it shows that apprehensions dropped during the Obama administration. Critics of Obama might be tempted to assume that the decrease in apprehensions was because Obama was weak on immigration, but that’s not true. Obama was actually pretty tough on immigration, as was Bush. What Obama did though was to dramatically increase the number of border protection agents at the southwest border. He was able to do this because in 2006 Secure Fence Act was passed, which increased funding for border patrol agents.
We have to be a little careful in making assumptions about what trends in apprehensions mean because U.S. immigration laws have changed over the years, as have policy approaches to border security.
For instance, the concept of illegality has changed over the years through the passage and implementation of stricter immigration laws. So, it is possible that in some years the number of immigrants entering the country remained stable, but what changed was immigration legislation and/or adherence to the legislation through policy approaches. Or in earlier years it wasn’t illegal for certain immigrants to come into the country to work, and then later it was, but the immigrants still came because they were hired by U.S. companies.
For instance, in 1986 (under Reagan) the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, which dramatically increased border enforcement, and in 1996 (under Clinton) the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed, which again increased funding for border enforcement. In 2002 (under Bush) the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act was passed, which provided increased funding for more border patrol agents, and in 2006 (under Bush) the Secure Fence Act was passed, which funded stretches of fencing along certain portions of the border. It would be interesting to evaluate border apprehensions in the years following the passage of these federal laws to see their effect.
An example of the impact of policy shifts on border apprehension numbers is Trump’s Zero Tolerance implemented in early 2018, which ushered in far stricter immigration controls. For instance, asylum seekers were not previously (as a rule) arrested, particularly if they presented themselves at U.S. Ports of Entry. They may or may not have been detained, but they weren’t typically arrested and charged criminally. Trump’s Zero Tolerance changed all that and beginning in about February 2018, immigrants attempting to enter the country without legal documentation, even those presenting themselves at a U.S. Port of Entry for political protection, were arrested. It can be assumed then, that the bump in numbers of apprehensions between 2017 and 2018 is at least partially due to this policy change.
Changes in policy approaches, such as increased funding for border patrol agents, do not account for the big variations in apprehensions though, and we can comfortably assume that in the last few decades there has been a dramatic reduction in apprehensions of immigrants entering the country unlawfully through the southwest border. The important question is why, because the answer will indicate whether certain immigration policies are working.
In the policy world we want to avoid “feel good legislation”—those laws or policies that make us feel good because they’re reactionary and dramatic, but they aren’t very effective. And we also want to watch out for “unintended effects” of policies and laws—a policy that looks great on the surface, but once it’s implemented it has an undesirable impact that we didn’t anticipate.
An example of an unintended effect from the policy world is an increase in corporate taxes to fund social programs (good), which ultimately leads to companies leaving a state or the country to avoid paying the higher tax (bad).
The graph below is interesting because it shows the number of border patrol agents working at the southwest border each year. As you can see, the number of border patrol agents hired has risen dramatically over the years, particularly during the Obama administration (likely in response to the bipartisan 2006 Secure Fence Act passed under Bush), and yet the number of apprehensions has gone down.
What does this mean?
Here are both graphs (border agents and apprehensions) side-by-side for easy comparison. The graph on the left shows the number of border agents working at the southwest border and the graph on the right shows the number of border apprehensions. If the variations in the number of annual apprehensions were solely because of policy changes (and not the number of people actually trying to enter the country) we’d expect upward trends on both graphs, meaning that as the number of agents increase, so do the number of arrests. But that’s not what’s happening.
As the number of border patrol agents has increased, and the number of apprehensions has actually decreased. Also, notice that the decline in apprehensions happened at about the same time as the dramatic increase in border patrol agents hiring in 2008.
From a policy perspective what this means is that the increase in border patrol agents likely served as a very effective deterrent to immigrants crossing the border without legal documentation. Immigrants knew their chances of getting apprehended increased, so they chose not to attempt entry.
Couple that with the increase in undocumented immigrants already living in the country leaving beginning in about 2008 (due to the recession), and this explains why we’re experiencing a sustained decrease in both undocumented immigrants living in the country, and those trying to enter.
How many people attempt to enter the U.S. unlawfully but don't get caught?
But what about the immigrants who weren’t apprehended? The ones who got away? Here’s a graph of US Customs and Border Patrol’s estimate of undetected unlawful entries over the last several years. This is just an estimate, but it’s a reliable one. You can click on the link and check out the government’s methodology for yourself if you like. I reviewed it and it’s solid.
As you can see, the number of unlawful entries since 2006 has significantly declined as well when there were an estimated 851,000 undetected unlawful entries, compared to 2016 when there were an estimated 62,000 undocumented entries (immigrants to entered the country without detection).
What does all of this mean?
What these statistics and graphs mean is that previously implemented immigration laws and policies are working.
Yes, undocumented immigrants from south of the border do try to enter the United States, but most are either turned away at the border or apprehended and then immediately deported.
Also, we should not confuse immigrants who attempt to unlawfully enter the country to work (often because they already have a job before they get here), with asylum-seekers. Purposely conflating economic migrants with political asylum-seekers is likely one of the more egregious manipulations this administration has engaged in.
It is not only legal for an immigrant to be in the United States without proper documentation in order to seek asylum, it is the only way to legally seek asylum (for very good reasons that are too complex to explore in this blog post).
In other words, according to our immigration laws, immigrants cannot apply for political asylum in the United States unless they are here without documentation. So, it’s important to remember that a good portion of immigrants currently apprehended at the border are seeking asylum, and many of them will qualify. Those who do not, will be deported very quickly.
Did other presidents want a wall?
On January 8, 2019 in a speech about border security and the need for a border wall, President Trump stated “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me. And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.”
Past recent presidents (or their spokespersons) dating back to Carter have all been asked if they talked to Trump about the border wall and all have stated they did not. All of them have also asserted that they never advocated for a border wall.
Trump has also stated that Democrats voted for a border wall in 2006. This is untrue as well. Rather, Trump is referring to the bipartisan Secure Fence Act of 2006 (referenced earlier), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. This act funded about 700 miles of border fences, along certain stretches of the border, but it didn’t fund a wall—just fences for gaps along certain portions of the border.
Do we need a border wall? No.
And if we did, would a border wall work? No.
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.