Immigration crisis on southern border? Maybe not

Everybody knows there is a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. A record number of unaccompanied children is crossing into the United States, and this flood

Everybody knows there is a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. A record number of unaccompanied children is crossing into the United States, and this flood of kids, most of whom are from Central America, could reach 90,000 by the end of the year.

But we wanted to know if the overall number of people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally is up.

In a word, the answer is no.

It turns out that the flow of undocumented individuals into the United States is at record low levels. How do we know that? Well, a key measurement is apprehensions – how many people are actually being caught trying to sneak in.  A decline in apprehensions is seen as a sign that fewer people are attempting to cross over.

Source: Congressional Research Service

For example, there were 409,849 apprehensions in 2012 compared with 1.6 million in 2000 on the U.S. Southwest border.  And even though there was an increase in apprehended migrants in 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that the number of people attempting to cross illegally into the United States is still near its lowest levels in 40 years.

There are a bunch of factors that led to this decline – including a weakened economy, heightened border enforcement, changes in deportation policy and the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings.

Let’s unpack some of those issues:


There’s not much mystery there. Housing construction was hit hard during the great recession, and that meant far fewer jobs for those seeking better economic opportunities across the border. And, as we mentioned, as the economy started to get better in 2013, the number of people trying to cross the border ticked up slightly.

Border security

  • The fence: In 2006, the Secure Fence Act was passed to build 700 miles of fencing in areas along the 2000-mile long border. Fencing, which costs on average of $3.9 million per mile, was part of the solution that helped the Border Patrol gain control of a stretch of border near San Diego, but sent migrants to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.  There remains a lot of debate over how effective the fence has been.
  • Border Patrol agents: Two decades ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol agents worked along the U.S.-Mexico border. Today there are 18,500.

Deportation policy

This one takes some explaining … and some defining.

  • "Deportation" was an official legal term before 1996. Anytime the government removed someone from inside the country who was in the United States unlawfully, that was considered a deportation. There also were "exclusions," which was the term for denying entrance to someone who was trying to get in. All that changed in 1996 with new immigration laws.
  • Deportations and exclusions all fell under a new title — “removals.” Undocumented immigrants who are removed may not be able to reapply for reentry for five, 10 or 20 years. It is even possible that they could be been permanently barred from reentering the United States.
  • Border agents could also “return” people were in the United States illegally. Until 2006, this action was known as “voluntary departure.” People who are returned are treated very differently. They can turn around and try to re-enter the country legally in the future.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, there were 8.3 million returns and 2 million removals, according to the Department of Homeland Security.  And in the later half of his term, DHS put more emphasis on removals than returns in order to discourage people from trying to sneak back across the border. That was in response to criticism that too many people “returned” were just turning around and entering the United States again. Removals put them in the system, with fingerprints and a formal record. If they were caught, the punishment could be harsh.

The Obama administration continued that policy and is now on pace for more removals than any president in history – more than two million.

The tightening of the border and the change in how migrants are treated legally has had some other effects.

Fewer migrants may be crossing, but those that do face a more treacherous journey. According to the U.S. border patrol, immigrant deaths near the border rose by 27 percent in 2012. All the enhanced security has combined to reroute migrants away from safer, highly trafficked crossing zones into remote and perilous stretches of hot, waterless desert.

And unlawful reentry into the United States has driven the dramatic growth in the number of offenders sentenced in federal courts.

Federal Convictions, 1992-2012
Source: Pew Research Center

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, these particular immigration cases account for almost half of the total number of offenders sentenced in federal courts in the past two decades. 

As that number increased, so too did the number of immigration offenders landing in federal prisons. Between 1998 and 2010 alone, growth in the number of immigration offenders accounted for 56 percent of the increase in federal prison admissions.

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