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At border, Homeland Security Department stats paint complex situation

White House says crisis is brewing, but apprehensions have declined, assets slowly built up

The Border Patrol has increased its assets along the southern border over the last 20 years, and crossings have declined. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Border Patrol has increased its assets along the southern border over the last 20 years, and crossings have declined. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump has spent much of his time in office making assertions about the southern border as he seeks to evoke a sense of crisis about an influx of illegal immigrants, possible terrorists, rapists and all manner of criminals who will threaten the safety of the American people.

That’s the same script he drew from Tuesday night as he addressed the nation from the Oval Office.

A crisis is often in the eye of the beholder, or in the eye of the person spinning a narrative. But the rhetoric doesn’t always match what the federal government knows to be true on the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s own statistics.

Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen trekked to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss the situation with House Republicans. 

“This is different, and in many ways more serious, and hopefully, that will help people understand and be able to communicate why physical barriers as well as people and technology are so important,” Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas said after the meeting. 

Trump’s border wall address vs. Democrats’ response

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For their part Tuesday, House Democrats maintained their negotiating posture: that discussions about border security should not take place until the partial government shutdown is ended. 

“Let’s be clear: Democrats are willing to discuss the best way to keep the border secure, but there’s no reason for the government to be shut down while those discussions take pace,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement. 

Trump says a recent surge in border apprehensions is caused by a lack of border security, but apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have actually trended downward for almost 20 years now.

The year 2000 saw the most apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the border, with 1.6 million caught. In subsequent years, through 2006, about 1 million per year were apprehended. Then they began a steady decline so that by the end of the Obama administration, they were down to about 300,000 per year.

But a surge in apprehensions of unaccompanied children and families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, beginning in 2014, has altered the face of illegal immigration. Fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty, these children and families sought asylum at the border in increasing numbers in the past four years. The levels are now 400,000 to 500,000 per year.

Because these migrants are seeking entry into the United States under asylum rules — which is a legal path to immigration — they need only present themselves at a legal point of entry and the U.S. government then must consider whether they have a credible fear of violence or injury back in their home countries. The government cannot quickly deport these Central Americans, because they come from countries with no contiguous borders to the United States. Under the law they cannot be turned back, unlike Mexican migrants, who can.

All sides of this issue acknowledge that this surge of Central Americans seeking asylum has taken its toll on the U.S. immigration system, on immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Border Patrol agents and the like.

But it’s also important to know that the U.S. government has way more assets at the border than it did in the early 2000s. During their administrations, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama increased fences, electronic measures and manpower.

Previous Democratic support for such assets has become a line of criticism from Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. 

“Enforcing our laws wasn’t immoral back in 2006 when then-Sen. Clinton, then-Sen. Obama and our friend the Democratic leader were proud, proud to vote for physical barriers. The only things that have changed between then and now are the political winds, and, of course, the occupant of the White House,” McConnell said on the floor Tuesday, referring, respectively, to former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer

According to the Border Patrol’s most recent figures, there were 16,605 agents patrolling the southern border in fiscal 2017, compared with 8,580 in fiscal 2000, when apprehensions peaked. The U.S.-Mexican border is 1,954 miles long. That’s about 8.5 agents per mile, or if you divided them up into three 8-hour shifts per day, almost three agents per mile all day every day.

Of course, Border Patrol agents are not deployed that way. They tend to be concentrated at border crossings and are deployed in pockets depending on geography, migrant flows and other considerations. But they are near their peak numbers, and many reports have surfaced that it’s getting harder for the government to recruit more.

The administration has also deployed 5,200 active duty troops, plus another 2,000 or so National Guard troops, to the southern border. By law, troops are not allowed to physically apprehend immigrants at the border because of laws barring troops from engaging in civilian law enforcement, but they are allowed to assist Border Patrol agents with conducting surveillance and with logistics.

But neither the deployment of troops nor the separation of families that he tried for a time earlier in 2018 brought about Trump’s desired effect of lower illegal immigration levels at the southern border. It is hard to measure a deterrence effect, but we know that since 2014, Central Americans have been arriving at the border in large numbers, and fairly consistently, no matter what the policy changes have been.

Dean DeChiaro and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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