The Border Numbers Racket

An 18-minute read, but there are graphs… a lot of them… plus a couple charts, and a table.

If well-received, I could see this post ending up part of a series where in addition to having explained data behind apprehensions, I seek to demystify statistics involving inadmissibility determinations at Ports of Entry, then maybe write about visa overstay rates. However, only time will tell regarding those latter two. In the meantime, since there’s no shortage of numbers being bandied about online by people with varying degrees of understanding what they mean, let me try to help you see them in perspective rather than just as numbers on a computer monitor.

 

Introduction

Unlike one of my close relatives who has a degree in math and loves it as if it were his first-born child (if you’re reading this Ris, sorry, but you know it’s true), I’m not terribly fond of it, and I never really have been. Though when push comes to shove, I’m probably better at math than I think, I won’t hesitate to rely on a calculator when it suits me, and by that, I mean I don’t want to be wrong. That said, over my Government career, I’ve needed math more than I anticipated I would, just not for things involving trigonometry, calculus, or algebra, so take that public school math teachers! 

I didn’t set out to write this post; however, in light of the Harris… err, I mean Biden-Harri whoa, wait, I’m passive-aggressively refusing to refer to it like that at work, I’m definitely not going to do so on my own blog, the Biden administration, still declining to call what’s happening at the Southwestern border a “crisis,” journalists and politicians sudden newfound obsession with the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) and 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act the former I covered in detail as part of a four-part piece (here are links to Parts I, II, and IV), and the latter making an appearance in Part III, plus the recent analytical Monkey Cage piece “The migrant’ surge’ at the U.S. southern border is actually a predictable pattern” by Tom K. Wong, Gabriel De Roche, and Jesus Rojas Venzor in The Washington Post. Anyway, I floated the idea of a post, and since several people expressed an interest, here we are!

 

Money, data, and gotaways

Major General (MajGen.) Smedley Butler, who after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps having been awarded two Medals of Honor, two Distinguished Service Medals, and four Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, and campaign medals earned for service in many of the very countries from which large numbers of illegal aliens are routinely apprehended became an outspoken critic of the U.S. military interventionism, in a 1933 speech famously described war as “just a racket” and two years later would publish a book titled, “War is a Racket.” I’m confident that in the 21st century, MajGen. Butler would describe Federal budgeting and the Congressional appropriations process similarly. (Ed. for my friend Daniel Horowitz, @RMConservative on Twitter, putting the phrase in context, MajGen. Butler, in the speech, said:

“I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. … There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”

Before we continue, I want to say, and for some of you, this isn’t new or a surprise; I appreciate the hard and dangerous work the men and women of the Border Patrol do. I hope, irrespective of your politics, that’s a sentiment you share. Further, I recognize they’ll never catch 100% of aliens who enter illegally. Accordingly, I wish this were more effectively communicated to Congress rather than the continuing cycle of receiving an annual appropriation, i.e., money in response to the agency’s annual budget request, being forced to provide not only data on the pounds of narcotics intercepted and aliens apprehended, but estimate its overall effectiveness to include the number of aliens who got away. Then again, as recently as September 2017, the Department’s Office of Immigration Statistics stated in its report, “Efforts by DHS to Estimate Southwest Border Security between Ports of Entry” that:

“While DHS employs a number of concrete metrics to track border security operations, it is difficult to precisely quantify illegal flows because illegal border crossers actively seek to evade detection, and some flows are undetected. As a result, any effort to quantify illegal flows or calculate an overall enforcement success rate must rely on one or more estimation techniques. Measurement is also difficult because of the diversity and complexity of the enforcement mission along the United States’ 2,000-mile land border with Mexico.”

I’m not going to risk alienating (pun intended) or worse, losing you five paragraphs in by detailing how CBP arrives at its estimate, but it can be boiled down to the following formula as appeared in “Holding the Line in the 21st Century”, a magazine published by CBP in 2104 containing “a trilogy of articles that outline the evolution of the Border Patrol’s border-security mission and strategy to achieve its goals.

What’s in a name

Because we’re talking about people of the alien variety who ultimately have no right to enter or remain in the U.S., it’s important to recognize when it comes to figures published by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), whether you’re attempting to read the newly renamed, politically correct, and intentionally vague “Southwest Land Border Encounters” page published after January 20, 2021 (Ed. It’s fun to dropkick the current administration, but this rebranding actually occurred before Inauguration Day) or legacy “Southwest Border Migration” by fiscal year (FY) pages, which had remained unchanged since about 2013, the figures include two groups. 

The first is aliens deemed inadmissible at a Port of Entry (PoE). This post is about numbers, so I’m not going to get into the myriad of ways an alien can be found inadmissible for admission into the U.S. Suffice to say, not having a passport, a visa, whether immigrant or nonimmigrant, or being from a participating Visa Waiver Program country, or “seeking asylum” are common examples. For that one person, yes, seeking asylum is “legal,” but attempting to do so is not grounds for admission to the U.S. and could be viewed as a reason for exclusion. Further, yes, I know that people as seeking asylum at PoEs, but to my point, they aren’t being admitted; they are being ‘paroled’ for a limited duration, initially one year for the express purpose of applying for asylum, which data strongly suggests many won’t/don’t actually do.

The second are aliens apprehended. CBP defines an apprehension as ‘physical control or temporary detainment by a Border Patrol Agent, which may or may not result in an arrest.’ However, since entering the U.S. anywhere other than at a PoE is a crime, an arrest might or might not result in prosecution (a separate part of the same offense, 8 U.S.C. § 1325, Improper Entry by [an] alien, also include entering through a PoE during any non-operational hours). There are court cases that escape me involving illegal entry into the U.S. through an unstaffed Port of Entry along the U.S.-Canadian border. (Ed. If I remember any, I’ll update this for those of you who might be curious.)

 

Do you have data or just an opinion?

This section takes its name from a paraphrased quip by a well-known and regarded American management consultant that at various points in his life had worked as an engineer and statistician, a professor, author, and lecturer named Dr. William Edwards Deming. Dr. Deming helped develop sampling techniques that allowed the U.S. Census Bureau to transition from strict Decennial enumeration and branch out into other collections like the annual American Community Survey (ACS), but is “[c]onsidered by many to be the master of continual improvement of quality, as well as [] overall operation, [and perhaps] best known for his pioneering work in [post-WWII] Japan.” Much of what I’ve learned about statistics and professionally apply from time to time stems from his teachings. It’s one of the reasons I’m so fussy about ensuring that I have authoritative references I can cite; the figurative receipts, if you will. I have no shortage of opinions about lots of things, but when it comes to immigration, I’d much rather refer to data and cite the law. That’s probably one of the reasons why I often say that I’m not for everyone.

This post represents the second time in almost as many days I’ve found myself embroiled in an argument—in the rhetorical sense, though for my opponents, it was probably more literal—about data from CBP. One involved a fact-check from The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s site, Factcheck.org, “Arizona Governor Cherry-Picks Illegal Immigration Data to Exaggerate Rise Under Biden”. Of course, most people not only didn’t bother to read the piece, they couldn’t comprehend the title of it. The takeaway was that “[t]he governor’s office [] us[ed] the wrong data (apprehensions and inadmissibility determinations) [while] cherry-picking dates.” Of course, the site does no one including itself favors with notable quotes such as:

  • Referring to the figures cited by Bobby Charette a who works for the Governor, that apprehensions and inadmissibles “actually [increased by] 487%” rather than 460%;
  • “There were 96,974 apprehensions in February, not quite the 100,000 that the governor said”, and my personal favorite
  • “CBP data for ‘border encounters’ includes ‘inadmissibles,’ who are ‘individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible”. While the statement is factually correct, the full quote from CBP is “[i]nadmissibles refers to individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws (Ed. emphasis mine), and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe.” In short, it’s illegal to be inadmissible, and that’s why aliens who are and are not seeking asylum can by law be promptly removed from the U.S. per 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b)(1).

 

The second, in short, involves the number of aliens that the administration might or might not be expelling under “Title 8”, i.e., 8 U.S.C. § 1225, or more importantly, “Title 42,” aka 42 U.S.C. § 265. Ironically, but I guess not surprisingly, while House Democrats were incensed over the Cheeto Dictator’s Muslim Ban (which wasn’t) using 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), authority upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2017 in Trump v. Hawaii, they introduced H.R. 2214, the NO BAN Act. I haven’t heard any complaints about expulsions by this one from anyone other than Immigration Attorneys and David J. Bier of the Cato Institute, so I guess NO BAN is now no priority.

 

Apples and oranges

While the idiom “apples to oranges” implies it’s impossible to compare two things or that doing so is somehow unfair, I tend to think of it in the context of both being fruit, only one of which is a citrus. The same can be said of the starting point of the unplanned orgy of math that’s about to occur. Most of these figures come from CBP’s Stats and Summaries page for those who want to follow along or doubt my sources’ validity. 

In retrospect, I didn’t really need to explain inadmissibility because the source I’m using, “U.S. Border Patrol Fiscal Year Southwest Border Sector Apprehensions (FY 1960 – FY 2019),” literally doesn’t include them. 

Let’s look at manipulation, not of the data itself, but of messaging. In December 2017, NPR proclaimed, “Arrests For Illegal Border Crossings Hit 46-Year Low.” That sounds great, right? It’s true that by September 30, 2017, the end of FY 2017, there had only been 310,531 apprehensions, 303,916 of which occurred along the Southwestern border. There’s just one problem… the nearly 105k reduction from the prior year was assuredly attributable to the “Trump Effect!” If you doubt it, there’s a video floating around online right now (March 2021) of ABC’s Martha Raddatz interviewing an “asylum seeker” from Brazil who cites violence as his reason for coming but admits it was the same last year, but he “[d]efinitely” wouldn’t have come if Trump was still President. The truth of the matter is, the four prior fiscal years averaged 408k apprehensions annually, and the totals were a roller coaster between 2010 – 2017, with 2010, 2013 – 2014, and 2016 having rates over 400k while 2011 – 2012, 2015, and 2017 came in just under it. Unlike NPR, the Bipartisan Policy Center took a different approach publishing a blog in December 2017 stating, “CBP 2017 Apprehensions May Be Historic, But They Are Not Dramatic”.

A line graph of arrests at the Southwest border between FY 2007 and FY 2017

Further, what NPR also fails to inform (or remind) its readers, is that “46-Year Low” was the far side of a bell curve.

A line graph comparing apprehensions at the Southwest border over 46 years

Warning: Math ahead!

Yes, yes, I know the above chart does not represent a perfect bell, but the Mean (m) is 871659.5106383, the Standard Deviation (σ) is 385162.61537245, and the leading and trailing tails are 263,991 and 303,916, respectively. For the rest of us, and notice I include myself in that group, here’s how the apprehensions for FYs 1971 – 1980 v. FYs 2008 – 2016 look like as a line chart. 

A line graph comparing apprehensions at the Southwest border from two 9-year periods between FY 1971 - FY 2017

While the series diverge with the former increasing and the latter decreasing, there were just 6,665 more arrests in 2010 versus 1973 though there were now 17,408 Border Patrol Agents on duty compared to however may there were in the early 1970s. The earliest figure I could find was 1992, which was 3,555.

 

The statistics circus

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for the main event, the real reason you’re hopefully still reading. If its earlier headline about the 46 year low that weren’t enough, NPR would strike again in late June 2018 with the headline “3 Charts That Show What’s Actually Happening Along The Southern Border”. While I disagreed with the intended premise, I will give them credit for in one chart, acknowledging what I was trying to communicate above:

“2017 Was An Outlier Year On The Southern Border” 

Really, you don’t say! Of course, immediately after quoting then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen detailing a triple-digit increase in both Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) and Family Units (FU) entering the country illegally from the year before, Science Desk report Rebecca Hersher, makes the following statement—presumably with a straight face “[t]here was an enormous dip in the number of people apprehended at the southern border in the first part of last year [2017] compared with the previous four years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Sociologists are studying the possible reasons [], but the numbers are clear.” If anyone wants to throw some money at me, I’m confident I can eventually figure it out. I’ll even let you figuratively call me “Doctor” like my Drill Instructors at Parris Island called me ‘the Professor.’ Come to think of it, my instructors at the School of Infantry may also have, but I’m getting off topic.

Ms. Hersher again deserves recognition for at least seemingly grasping what others clearly miss; you can’t accurately compare apprehensions solely based on totals, nor necessarily year-over-year. “A more telling month-to-month comparison”, she says, “would be between this May [2018] and May of 2014, at the peak of the most recent surge in people migrating from Central America. This May, Customs and Border Protection took 6,405 unaccompanied children into custody, compared with 10,578 children in May 2014. The trend was similar for families, with 9,485 apprehensions in May 2018, compared with 12,772 in May 2014.” Sadly, she doesn’t provide a chart for it, so I will. I’d also like to note that the figure she cites for May 2018 UAC apprehensions is incorrect; it’s 6,367 per the “Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector [page] for FY2018” and the “Border Patrol Total Monthly UAC Apprehensions by Sector (FY 2010 – FY 2019)” file.

A chart comparing apprehensions at the Southwest border in May 2017 with May 2014

Of course, to make things really interesting, let’s do Februarys instead. I’ve also added a trend line for your convenience not that you likely needed it.

A chart comparing apprehensions at the Southwest border in February 2021 with February 2108 and 2014

Wee, this game is fun!

But Mr. Celler, some of you are undoubtedly about to blurt out; what about 2019, which from an apprehension standpoint was the highest year of Trump’s presidency. Well, if you promise never to call me “Mr. Celler” ever again, you can rest assured, there’s a chart for that too. Here you go…

The takeaways from it are as follows:

  • The number of apprehended UACs had already exceeded those of February 2019 by 2,480;
  • The number of FUs apprehended is just over half when comparing Februarys FY 2021 and FY 2019, but remember, we’re only talking about one month of twelve;
  • Given the numbers of UACs and FUs who have been apprehended since 2019, people should be referencing 2014 far less unless looking back on it fondly warts and all, to observe what’s going on now is, by comparison, a “crisis!”

 

Beating the dead horse

On the off chance you didn’t find me clear earlier or my argument compelling, merely quoting data about border apprehensions isn’t sufficient to understand the issue nor explain it to others—case in point, this fact check of Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (TX-16) by Politifact. My objection isn’t actually to the article itself, which was pretty fair, and seemed free of word parsing that is so common in the genre. Instead, it’s their graph of “Unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border”. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself, but telling you how many UACs doesn’t provide context like how 13.5% of those apprehended during the first five months of the fiscal year were caught in the month of February and in a single Border Patrol sector, the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). Or how that single monthly total of 3,945 in the RGV is just 27 apprehensions shy of the sum of seven of the other eight sectors combined. What about how three of the sectors, the RGV, Tucson, and El Paso, had four-digit apprehension rates during the month?

 

Uh, Houston, we have a… child

Problems aren’t limited to UACs, nor to February, this fiscal year, or even the RGV, just inarguably worst there.. Still, UACs represent the greatest issue of concern despite being the smallest, pardon the pun, population apprehended each year.

A line graph of apprehensions at the Southwest border in FY 2019

Considering it’s only April, it’s safe to say things can, and assuredly will only get worse. How much? Truthfully that’s hard to say, though I’m concerned we’re going to rival 2000’s total of 1.64M apprehensions for FY 2021, but even if we were closer to 2006’s 1.07M, they weren’t being released into the country’s interior why President Bush’s then-Secretary Michael Chertoff shrugged.

What people seem to either not know or don’t understand—and maybe you are one, no judgment—is that yes, the number of adults apprehended exceeds the number of UACs and families, sometimes both combined, except for 2019, when for the first time going back at least to FY 2011, the number of individuals apprehended as part of FUs exceeded single adults. As I’ve detailed in other posts, the Border Patrol cannot treat a family or unaccompanied child as they would single adult, and because of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the TVPRA, especially not if the child is from a country other than Mexico or Canada. The sheer volume of people apprehended combined with restrictions on repatriation of unaccompanied children and involuntary participation in completing the smuggling conspiracy is how we get “kids in cages”—note I’m not excusing it; I’m simply making an observation. Additionally, as I tweeted in a preview of this piece, Health and Human Services has a limited number of what it refers to as “standard” beds, i.e., ones that are available for UACs year-round. The current number seems to be about 6,500, and UACs stay in a shelter facility for approximately two months before they are placed with a Sponsor as required by the FSA. Using those two figures and the year-to-date number of UAC apprehensions, I decided that for me, 40k UACs in a year constitutes a “crisis.” 

Additionally, large influxes of families and unaccompanied children invariably will result in their needing to be taken care of, and often to the local hospital or medical provider for care. Along the Southwestern border, providers may not be close, so in addition to in-station care, every sick child, pregnant female, and depending on how long it is before an alien can be transferred to ICE, requiring a follow-up appointment represents time Border Patrol Agents aren’t working to ‘hold the line,’ (Ed. for the few of you who recognize what started I swear as an unintentional Toto reference, you’re welcome) processing apprehended aliens, etc. Things have gotten so bad; the organization decided in 2019 to create a new position, Border Patrol Processing Coordinator, to handle “processing, transportation, and custody responsibilities, [to] free up agents for critical law enforcement operations”.

Excuses, excuses…

In her March 26, 2021 Press Briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki claimed the increase in encounters at the Southwestern border is, “often seasonal … cyclical.” If we take the comment at face value, it’s technically correct. Just before that, she references comments from the President indicating:

“[He] was making the point that we have seen increases at the border: in 2014, when he was the Vice President; 2018 and 2019. And he conveyed that, over the last six months of the Trump administration, there was an increase of about 31 percent. We’ve seen an increase of about 29 percent over the last several months since he took office.”

Returning to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage piece “The migrant’ surge’ at the U.S. southern border is actually a predictable pattern”, Post Opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin alludes to it the day before when she wrote, in “Biden should fact-check the White House press corps,” “there has been no surge of arrivals outside the normal fluctuation of migration. ‘It’s the usual seasonal increase,’ according to three academics who write in The Post’s Monkey Cage, using data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This is what the facts show: … ‘migrants are continuing to enter the United States in the same numbers as in fiscal year 2019 — plus the pent-up demand from people who would have come in fiscal year 2020, but for the pandemic.’”

 

Let’s look at the above assertions. Are there seasonal fluctuations? Yes, and they vary from year to year and based on current events—contrary to what people might think, there are TVs and the internet in Latin America. That’s not to say that every backwater un burro pueblo has CNN en Español and broadband, but there are also phones and newspapers. 

 

Based on my familiarity with annual apprehensions, the ‘seasonal fluctuations’ cyclically happen between February and June, usually peaking between March and May, begin tapering as summer temperatures soar off through the fall and throughout the winter, with the lowest apprehensions occurring at some point between July and January and varying by Border Patrol Sector.

 

Analyzing eight years of apprehensions (in total, not by type, e.g., UACs, FUs, and Single Adults), that statement is true for FYs 2013 – 2016 and 2018 – 2019, but not for FYs 2017 or 2020. In FY 2017, the four months with the highest apprehensions were October, November, December, and January, while in FY 2020, the top four months were January (honestly, I’d need to do some research on what happened), July, August, and September, and continued through the beginning of FY 2021. For those really into the math portion of this exercise, 26.98% of Sector highs were in March, 20.63% in April, 14.29% in May, and all other months were 38.1%, though September accounts for 23.81% of the total. Switching to months, where one of those three was the highest, apprehensions totaled 874,229 and were 26.59% of the 3.28M during those years. (Ed. Yes, I realize there are only FYs 2013 – 2017 shown, did you really need three pages of the same thing?) 

Further, to Psaki’s reiteration of the President’s apprehension recollection of the last seven years, the average of the first three months of them went from a low of 26,603 in FY 2013 to a high of 51,204 in FY 2019. Still, in FYs 2104, 2016, and 2020, total apprehensions were in the low to mid-30,000s. As for the final three months of those eight years, all but 2015, 2017, 2019 – 2020 were higher or lower than the 30,000s: 29,638, 21,004, 54,390, and 46,863, respectively. So to Rubin’s point, if Biden’s going to fact check the Press Corps, whether or not that’s through Psaki, shouldn’t his facts at least be correct?

A line graph comparing apprehensions at the Southwest border from October 1, 2020 through February 28, 2021

Conclusion

Maybe you think what’s happening along our Southwestern border is a “crisis,” and the information I’ve presented simply reinforces that. On the other hand, you might not think it’s that big a deal and that we should let anyone into the U.S. who can successfully make it here, even if that involves them being smuggled or paying to smuggle someone else, like their child. Further, perhaps the skyrocketing number of asylum cases don’t bother you either, even the frivolously submitted ones entirely unrelated to persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. There is a discussion which needs to happen sooner rather than later between the pro- and anti-immigration camps without rhetoric consisting of cherry-picked facts or worse, devoid of them entirely, if for no other reason than over how we as a nation treat UACs, and that their parents often endanger them while claiming to want them to have a better life here. We’re indeed a nation of immigrants, but it’s been a long time since there were no restrictions on them, and we’ve been a nation of laws for just as long, and the two don’t nor can they exist without each other. Hopefully, the information from this post will help you engage constructively in the border debate, and if you close the window taking nothing else away, please let it be that at the end of the day, who is crossing, where, and when are more important than the total number. 

Finally, while writing this, I happened across a 2017 blog post, “The ‘virtual wall’ along the US/Mexican border,” by a man named Robert Allison, a Ph.D. who works for an analytics company, SAS, in Cary, North Carolina. I don’t know whether Dr. Allison has a particular interest in the subject of border enforcement or just made his graphs to show how much more effectively the information could be communicated than CBP does. Still, for the super wonky among you, I highly recommend his piece! 

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