President Donald Trump’s argument for building a border wall has boiled down to one word: crisis.
Trump and senior administration officials have repeatedly invoked the term in recent days as they push Democrats to approve border wall funding and reopen the government.
In a Monday briefing with reporters, Vice President Mike Pence referred several times to a “crisis” along the southwest border; over the weekend, other administration officials, like White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, also spoke of a security crisis, raising the specter, without presenting hard evidence, of terrorists entering the U.S. through a porous southern border.
Trump himself, in announcing his Tuesday prime-time immigration address, framed it as a speech on the “Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border.”
Pence and Nielsen, among other White House officials, have focused their case for a crisis on three main points: the flow of illegal immigration, drugs and terrorism into the U.S. through the southwest border.
But a closer look at the numbers raises questions on whether these issues are getting worse, and, whether they constitute a crisis.
Here’s what the evidence, including from the government’s own data, shows:
The administration claims there has been a dramatic spike in illegal drugs entering the country at the southwest border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there was an increase in the number of drug seizures of methamphetamine and fentanyl from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. (The data for fiscal year 2018 doesn’t have numbers for September.)
In a 2018 DEA drug threat assessment report, several of the drugs highlighted by Customs and Border Protection pass through legal ports of entry, not through illegal border crossings. (The agency traced most heroin and cocaine to privately owned vehicles passing through legal ports of entry. Fentanyl from Mexico is most often transported this way, too. Sometimes, drugs are mixed in with legal goods on tractor-trailers.)
According to drug threat assessments from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of the drugs that cross the southwest border are brought in through official ports of entry. This has been the case for years.
David Bier, an immigration policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote in a December 2018 blog post noted that the drugs Border Patrol agents seize at official ports of entry were three times more valuable than the drugs seized outside of those ports.
“In other words, a border wall would not target the most valuable drugs crossing the border,” Bier wrote.
Administration officials have provided varying numbers in recent days that point to a wave of terrorists or criminals seeking to cross into the U.S. through the southwest border. But the statistics have often been misleading.
Last week, Nielsen told Democrats in a closed-door meeting that immigration officials apprehended more than 3,000 terrorists and 17,000 adults with criminal records at the border in the last fiscal year. Trump cited the 17,000 number in his Jan. 4 letter to Congress.
Customs and Border Protection data shows that across the country in fiscal year 2018, immigration officials encountered 16,831 “criminal aliens.” These are individuals who have been convicted of a crime in the U.S. or abroad, and are flagged by officials at legal ports of entry or airports as being “inadmissible” into the U.S.
Terrorism has been repeatedly cited by White House officials as a specific concern about who enters the country along the southern border.
“We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and they make a left,” Trump said at a news conference in the Rose Garden last week.
Sanders, in a Jan. 6 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, claimed that nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into the U.S. illegally, adding that “we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
Wallace refuted the claim, noting in an on-air fact check that most terrorists are stopped at airports.
Video by Fox News
The State Department has said that no terrorists have been found crossing the southern border from Mexico into the U.S. In a 2017 report, the State Department said there was “no credible evidence” indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico or sent operatives into the U.S.
Data obtained by NBC News shows that of the 41 people stopped by border agents in the first half of fiscal year 2018, six were determined to be “non-U.S. persons” and suspected of having terrorism ties.
When asked last week at the Rose Garden news conference about terrorism at the border, Nielsen said that number was classified and offered another term: “special interest aliens,” of which she said border officials stopped more than 3,000 last year.
Here’s how DHS has described a special interest alien, known as an “SIA” in a new Q&A posted on the agency’s website Monday: “Generally, an SIA is a non-U.S. person who, based on an analysis of travel patterns, potentially poses a national security risk to the United States or its interests.” The agency goes on to say that this didn’t mean that SIA’s are necessarily terrorists, but that their travel behaviors warranted further investigation.
“DHS has never indicated that the SIA designation means more than that,” the agency added.
The flow of unauthorized immigration
Immigration officials keeps tabs on the number of apprehensions at the border every year; it’s partly how the government tracks trends in illegal immigration. This is a number that Trump has focused on, too.
According to CBP, there were nearly 400,000 apprehensions — of those trying to cross the border without authorization — in fiscal year 2018. The number of apprehensions increased for several consecutive months during this period, which started Oct. 1, 2017 and ended Sept. 30, 2018.
That number is far lower than the more than 1.6 million people who were apprehended in fiscal year 2000, widely considered a peak year apprehensions at the border in recent decades. Since then, overall apprehensions have declined to current levels.
Why have those numbers fallen so dramatically? Part of the decline has to do with a shift in migration patterns. During peak levels of unauthorized immigration, border patrol agents were largely stopping young Mexicans coming into the country. Today, the number of Central American migrants seeking protection in the U.S. has risen, and the number of Mexicans apprehended at the border has dropped.
Several factors contributed to that long-term change, according to Randy Capps, the director of research at Migration Policy Institute: Better jobs and educational opportunities in Mexico combined with the tech crash and recession of the 2000s.
Today, more families and unaccompanied children have been arriving at the border, and as a result, the Border Patrol’s mission has shifted, Capps said.
Border agents are “increasingly tasked with providing a safe place for people, and sometimes they need to provide medical care as well for more vulnerable people, more women and children,” he said. “That’s a different kind of a job than the job of finding people who are trying to evade them in the desert.”
In December, Border Patrol announced that two migrant children died in U.S. custody, prompting criticism from advocates and lawmakers.
In an interview with CBS News, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the facilities at border stations were built decades ago and meant to hold single adult males.
“What we’re seeing is more children than ever before coming into our custody,” he said. “At this pace in December we’ll have almost 25,000 children, most of the them accompanied by parents who have crossed our border and arriving in custody.”
He added: “That’s very different than we’ve seen before.”
A security crisis, or an asylum crisis?
There’s widespread agreement across the political spectrum that the immigration system is broken. But while the Trump administration has centered on national security, the current situation is an “asylum system crisis, rather than a border security crisis,” Capps said.
“What you need is not necessarily more detention, more security, more walls, more barriers, more detection,” he added. “You need facilities that can handle women and children, a better and faster screening process for asylum.”
The Trump administration’s response to the surge of Central American families at the border has largely focused on deterrence through efforts like the “zero-tolerance” policy, which was put in place last year and resulted in thousands of families being separated at the border (most have since been reunified under court order).
The administration has also placed restrictions on who can apply for asylum, though many of those moves have been challenged in court. For example, in December, a federal judge struck down the Trump administration guidance to prevent individuals who are fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse in their home countries from pursuing asylum.
A government watchdog report also raised concerns over a particular practice — known as “metering” — that limits the flow of potential asylum-seekers at ports of entry by capping the number of claims being processed in a given day. The report found that metering led “some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.”
McAleenan, the Customs and Border Patrol commissioner, acknowledged at a December hearing that metering was used as a management tool, and not as a deterrent. McAleenan also said the agency doesn’t keep track of how many people are apprehended in between ports of entry because of the agency’s metering practice.
But, according to a letter from senior House Democrats, CBP’s acting assistant commissioner told them in a Dec. 6 closed briefing that the agency was limiting the number of asylum claims it processed, BuzzFeed News reported.
Trump floats the option to declare a national emergency at the border. Can he do that?
In short, yes.
The president has said he could use his executive power to declare a national emergency at the southwest border, a move that could allow him to fund the border wall without approval from Congress.
William Brangham asks Elizabeth Goitein of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice how a national emergency is defined and what powers become available after one is declared.
Presidents do have “unlimited discretion” under the National Emergencies Act, which was passed in 1976, Elizabeth Goitein, of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, told the NewsHour.
But there are still some checks and balances on a president who invokes such authority, she said. Under the same law, Congress can terminate a state of emergency by a vote in both the House and Senate.
A national emergency declaration could also be challenged in the courts, Goitein said.
“There are some pretty good legal arguments to be made that the specific provisions of law the president would probably rely on really shouldn’t apply here,” she said. “But it’ll be a fight, and it won’t be a slam dunk on either side.”