Last week, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released new information telling us what happened at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. The data came in two reports: new statistics about apprehensions of migrants, and CBP’s annual Border Security Report.
This information, plus an annual DEA “threat assessment” report released in October, tells us four things that matter greatly for Congress as it considers the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. That bill would build 74 miles of border wall for $1.6 billion, while adding 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 1,000 ICE agents.
Border Patrol apprehended 303,916 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. That was the lowest annual total since 1972. This is part of a long-term trend of declining apprehensions at the border. In 13 of the last 16 years (and 9 of the last 10), the annual number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol has consistently ranked lower than the previous three-year average. And according to CBP’s best estimates, the number of migrants who evade apprehension has also been shrinking.
This year saw 26 percent fewer migrants than 2016. The drop began after Donald Trump’s inauguration: February, March, and April saw the fewest monthly apprehensions since at least 2000, when Border Patrol makes monthly records available, and probably since the 1970s.
Analysts have called this the “Trump effect.” Word of mouth about aggressive enforcement and terrorized communities traveled fast. For a few months, smugglers went into “wait and see mode.” Migrants “don’t understand…what’s going on right now in terms of the enforcement and what we’re doing on the border,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in May. “That’s caused them to delay their departure, if you will.”
After April 2017, monthly totals of migrant apprehensions stopped dropping. Though the “Trump effect” hasn’t totally faded, the number of apprehensions in September 2017 resembles the number in September 2014, and may continue to increase. WOLA saw over 100 children and families arriving on a late November evening in south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector. Migrant smugglers haven’t gone out of business, and fear continues to drive people from Central America.
The profile of migration has changed. Of those apprehended in 2017, an unprecedented 39 percent were children and members of family units, up from less than 2 percent between 2003 and 2009. The vast majority of these kids and families were from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, and most were asking U.S. authorities for protection from threats back home.
Statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are stark: they report a 20 percent increase in citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras requesting asylum at the border in 2017, compared to 2016. In a year that saw a one-quarter overall drop in migrants, more Central Americans came to request asylum.
Violent crime remains severe in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which had the second, fourth, and seventeenth highest murder rates on earth in 2016. Gangs continue to threaten tens of thousands. Political turmoil, corruption scandals, and human rights crimes intensified in 2017, reducing hope that next year might see improvements.
Central Americans will continue to come to the United States seeking protection next year, no matter what tough measures are in the Homeland Security bill. Instead, legislation should include more resources to process and adjudicate their claims.
The average Border Patrol agent apprehended 18 migrants this year—one every 20 days, tying a low set in 2011. But unlike in 2011, 39 percent were kids and families. Agents are spending much of their time processing and caring for that population.
With 19,437 agents at the end of fiscal year 2017, Border Patrol staffing shrank for the sixth straight year. This is not due to budget cuts: with 65 percent of applicants failing polygraph tests (nearly double the average for law enforcement agencies), the force has had difficulty replacing those who leave.
The White House has called for hiring 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, starting with 500 in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriation. Rather than growth at a time of vastly reduced migration, the agency should focus on meeting its funded target: that is, hiring approximately 1,600 additional agents to meet the goal of 21,070 agents total. This can only happen if Border Patrol uses improved screening capacity to speed up the hiring process,while keeping the past few years’ tough screening standards in place.
Data on border drug seizures take a while to become public. The Drug Enforcement Administration publicly reported 2016 seizure data in October of this year. It found big increases in border-area seizures of all drugs except cannabis.
This is a problem—but it isn’t a wall-building or Border Patrol issue. As the DEA report explains, all drugs except cannabis primarily cross the border through ports of entry: the legal border crossings. Much less heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, or fentanyl crosses through the rural, isolated areas between the ports of entry, which is where the White House proposes to build costly walls.
The ports of entry are beleaguered. Wait times are long. The CBP estimates at least another 2,000 officers are needed to best handle the workload at these crossings. Facilities need $5 billion in improvements. Why, then, did the White House’s 2018 budget request specify no increased funding for ports of entry?
The 2017 numbers are indicative of vastly reduced migration, much greater numbers of children and families requesting protection, and the growing challenge of detecting drug smuggling at ports of entry. None of these trends call for solutions like the building of walls or the hiring of additional Border Patrol agents. Data from the border does not support the new border security measures in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. The problems revealed by these statistics demand a different, smarter approach.