WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

5 Jul 2018 | Commentary

Southwest Border Data Shows ‘Zero Tolerance’ Didn’t Deter Migrants After All

In May and June, while shocking the world with their “zero tolerance” policy of arresting all border crossers and separating asylum-seeking parents and children, Trump administration officials contended that their cruelty had a purpose: to deter and dissuade future migrants from even attempting the trip.

If that theory were true, then Border Patrol would have apprehended far fewer migrants in June 2018. With the “zero tolerance” policy going firmly into effect around May 5, and media reports of family separations accumulating by the end of May, would fewer people try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in June?

On July 5, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) gave us its answer, releasing its June data. It turns out that U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 15.4 percent fewer migrants at the border, between the official ports of entry, in June compared to May. A statement from the Homeland Security Department credits “the implementation of the Administration’s zero-tolerance policy.”

Not so fast. Border Patrol almost always measures fewer migrant apprehensions in June compared to May. A seasonal drop is normal: it’s scorchingly, dangerously hot in the arid deserts along the southwest border, and fewer migrants attempt the journey.

Between 2000 and 2017, the average monthly drop from Mays to Junes at the U.S.-Mexico border was 21.3 percent fewer migrant apprehensions. That’s 5.9 percentage points steeper than June 2018’s 15.4 percent decrease. The May to June 2018 drop in migration was smaller than the average of the previous 18 years, showing no deterrent effect at all.

Between 2011 and 2017, a period of sharply reduced cross-border migration, the average May-June drop was much lower: 11.3 percent. The May to June 2018 drop in migration, then, was 4.1 percentage points larger than the average of the previous 7 years, showing only a very modest potential deterrent effect.

Had 2018 matched the 2011-2017 average, Border Patrol would have apprehended 35,785 migrants at the border. Instead, it apprehended 34,114. The difference is 1,671, or 4.6 percent, fewer. So perhaps that’s about how many migrants may have been “deterred.” Not much.

What about unaccompanied children and families, most of whom are asylum-seekers, and who make up most of those hit hardest by the “zero tolerance” policy? We only have monthly data for child and family apprehensions since 2013.

In the five years from 2013 to 2017, though, the number of apprehended children and family-unit members actually increased by an average of 8.3 percent from Mays to Junes. In June 2018, though, children and families decreased by 8.2 percent. That decrease is virtually identical to that measured between May and June 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. Again, we see only a modest potential deterrent effect.

Had 2018 matched the 2013-2017 average increase, Border Patrol would have apprehended 17,191 children and family members in June 2018. Instead, it apprehended 14,564. The difference is 2,627 people, or 15 percent, fewer. So perhaps that is about how many children and family members were “deterred.” Again, not much.

For all of the pain and outrage it has caused, during a month when it was at its most intense and generating worldwide headlines, the “zero tolerance” policy had only a very small deterrent effect on would-be migrants.

Instead of this cruel approach, it’s beyond time to focus on the violence, corruption, and misrule pushing tens of thousands of Central Americans out of their home countries. And it’s time to revisit alternatives to detention: programs that allow families to await their asylum decisions outside of detention, using location monitoring or caseworker support to ensure near-total compliance at a fraction of the cost. This would work far better than attempting deterrence through imposed misery.

Data for all Migrants

Year May-June Change May June
2000 -30.8% 166,296 115,093
2001 -27.5% 122,927 89,131
2002 -19.3% 97,424 78,655
2003 -14.8% 88,690 75,530
2004 -20.3% 118,726 94,590
2005 -21.6% 115,823 90,786
2006 -35.2% 105,450 68,366
2007 -19.4% 88,504 71,338
2008 -22.2% 69,233 53,854
2009 -9.5% 50,884 46,044
2010 -30.0% 47,045 32,955
2011 -13.0% 31,236 27,166
2012 -17.0% 36,966 30,669
2013 -21.5% 43,856 34,436
2014 -4.6% 60,683 57,862
2015 -7.2% 31,576 29,303
2016 -14.6% 40,337 34,450
2017 10.8% 14,519 16,087
2018 -15.4% 40,338 34,114
Average MayJune decrease 2000-2017 -21.3%
Average MayJune decrease 2011-2017 -11.3%
Source: http://bit.ly/2F1UHsc


Data for Unaccompanied Children and Family Unit Members

Year May-June Change May June
2013 -12.6% 5,300 4,634
2014 +15.4% 23,350 26,950
2015 +15.7% 6,804 7,875
2016 -8.1% 12,384 11,383
2017 +40.0% 3,060 4,283
2018 -8.2% 15,873 14,564
Average MayJune increase 2013-2017 +8.3%
Sources: http://bit.ly/2lV27Xh / http://bit.ly/2lU14a5 / http://bit.ly/2mDr1fQ