Tag: Border Patrol

Legal Migration Can Control the Border

I recently wrote a piece about the increase in guest workers and the remarkably consistent level of entries, legal and illegal, of workers and new lawful permanent residents. The main choice the U.S. government faces is whether the migrants who come here are legal or unlawful.  Excluded from my previous blog were J-1 visas for researchers, au pairs, and the like. 

About a third of unauthorized immigrants worked in service jobs in 2012, as well as 28 percent of foreign-born residents who are not naturalized, compared to just 16.7 percent of natives. Au pairs and child care are an important component of these economic sectors so including them is important to understand the shift from unlawful to lawful immigration (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Guest Worker Visas Issued, Green Cards for New Arrivals, and Gross Illegal Immigrant Inflows


Sources: State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Pew.

The biggest decline in unlawful immigration has come from Mexico but the surge in Mexican J-1s by itself cannot possibly explain that. In 1997, 3,633 Mexicans were issued J-1 visas while only 9,044 were issued the same visa in 2015. Regardless, the change in the number of Mexican apprehensions since 1997 explains virtually all of the change in the total number of apprehensions with a correlation coefficient of 0.994. The inclusion of J-1s does not change the conclusion from my previous post. 

Rising wages in Mexican states that sent migrants to the United States, lackluster U.S. economic growth, and increased border security all played a role in shrinking Mexican unauthorized immigration. The increase in border patrol from 1997 to 2015 is closely correlated with the number of new guest worker visas issued to Mexicans and the unemployment rate. The numbers of Mexicans apprehended is negatively correlated with all three—with the number of border patrol agents coming in on top at -0.95, Mexican guest workers at -0.78, and the U.S. unemployment rate at -0.68. The adjusted R-squared for all the variables is 0.86. 

There is an impressive trade-off between the number of Mexican guest workers and apprehensions of them attempting to enter unlawfully (Figure 2). Figure 3 shows the same figures in a more dramatic, less technical graph. Increasing the number of guest workers for Mexicans is also much cheaper than hiring new border patrol agents. 

Figure 2: Guest Worker Visas for Mexicans and Mexican Apprehensions

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Figure 3: Guest Worker Visas for Mexicans and Mexican Apprehensions

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

The number of guest worker visas issued to Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans has flattened since 2005 while the number of apprehensions of them at the border has more than doubled. Expanding the number of guest worker visas and making more of them available to Central Americans would be a cheap, effective, and economically beneficial way to diminish the flow of unlawful immigrants from those countries and to expand control over the border.  

Guest worker programs do not have to replace every would-be unlawful entrant with a legal work visa. Each visa issued during the Bracero program of the 1950s and 1960s replaced about 3.4 Mexican unauthorized immigrants, on average. Legal migrant workers are preferred by American employers, the migrants themselves, and should be favored by policy makers too. 

The Choice: Legal Immigrants or Illegal Immigrants

People react to public policies by changing their behavior.  Foreigners committed to immigrating to the United States are confronted with two options – they can come legally or they can come illegally.  When visas are legally available, cheap, and plentiful they choose to come legally.  When visas are difficult to get, expensive, and few in number then many immigrants decide to come illegally.*  Employers face a similar dilemma when choosing to hire workers.

The inflow of illegal immigrants has slowed dramatically in recent years.  The poor American economy, economic growth south of the border, Mexican demographics, and heightened border security all partially explain that decline.  Another explanation is that the number of guest worker visa has increased, convincing some would-be illegal immigrants to instead enter and work legally.    

The annual number of guest worker visas issued on the E, H, L, O, P, and TN visas increased by 157 percent from 1997 to 2015.  The annual number of green cards for new arrivals also increased by 25 percent during the same time period and, although the majority are for lower-skilled family members, they also work in many of the occupations that would otherwise be filled by illegal immigrants.  The gross number of illegal immigrants making it into the United States each year also shrank during that time.

The number of guest workers, gross illegal immigrant entries, and green cards issued to new arrivals is surprisingly flat from 1997 to 2015, ranging from a high of 1.66 million in 1999 to a low of 1.17 million in 2009 (Figure 1).  The average during the entire period is 1.41 million entries a year.  The number of entries is remarkably constant even when considering the Great Recession and slow recovery, indicating that the number of entries doesn’t change nearly as much as the method of entry.  New green cards and guest worker visas are being used by many immigrants who would otherwise have entered illegally. 

Figure 1

Guest Worker Visas Issued, Green Cards for New Arrivals, and Gross Illegal Immigrant Inflows


Sources: State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Pew.

We Don’t Need More Border Patrol

Trump’s call for a wall along the border reflects a common desire to control that supposedly lawless frontier.  As far as unauthorized immigration goes, the border is coming under increasing control.  337,117 total unauthorized immigrants were apprehended by Border Patrol in 2015, the lowest number since 1971 (Chart 1).  That number will likely rise this year but will still remain low.  

Chart 1

Border Patrol Apprehensions


Source: Customs and Border Protection.

Like the rest of government, Border Patrol has grown considerably over the decades despite the fall in apprehensions.  In 2015 there were just over 20,000 Border Patrol agents, double the number in 2002 and 6.3 times as many as were employed in 1986 (Chart 2). 

Chart 2

Border Patrol Officers


Source: Customs and Border Protection.

The increase in the size of Border Patrol has likely decreased unauthorized immigration, although the precise amount is up for debate (read this excellent report for more information).  On the opposite side, there is consistent evidence that border security does not affect the number of illegal entries but can dissuade migrants from leaving once they make it in.  Although the effect of Border Patrol and security on illegal entries is not entirely clear, it is obvious that the average Border Patrol officer is apprehending fewer unauthorized immigrants than at any time in decades with the exception of 2011 (Chart 3).

Chart 3

Apprehensions Per Border Patrol Agent

Source: Customs and Border Protection.

There is already too much corruption in Customs and Border Protection, exacerbated by rapid expansions in the size of their force.  New hiring binges will likely increase the struggles with corruption still more.  Problems with agency corruption and a low period in unlawful immigration are superb arguments against expanding and perhaps to even shrink the Border Patrol back to a reasonable size.

Update on Unaccompanied Alien Children

A new Congressional Research Service report provides a handy overview of the current state of knowledge surrounding Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended on the Southwest border.  Many Central American children and other family members have crossed the border and sought asylum in the United States.

UAC apprehensions so far in 2016 exceed those apprehended in 2015 but they are still below the peak year of 2014 (See Figure 1). 

Figure 1

Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions


Source: Customs and Border Protection.

The number of apprehensions is up this year on a monthly basis.  The UAC are a small fraction of the total apprehensions (Figure 2)

Figure 2

All Apprehensions and UAC


Source: Customs and Border Protection.

UAC apprehensions are concentrated in just a few border sectors, most are entering through Texas (Figure 3).  A map of the border patrol sectors puts the flow in perspective (Figure 4).    

Figure 3

UAC Apprehensions by Border Sector


Source: Customs and Border Protection.

Figure 4

Border Patrol Sectors


Source: Customs and Border Protection. 

If the UAC could instead receive a worker visa or green card then they would not have to brave the difficult trip through Mexico from Central America and endure uncertainty and detention once they reach the United States.  Border Patrol wouldn’t have to waste their time apprehending these folks but could instead focus on stopping actual violent and property crime.  The lack of a legal immigration alternative for the UACs and their family already in the United States has created this situation.  An expanded legal immigration system can fix it.

What the Overstay Rate Tells Us about Border Security

There are two ways to become an illegal immigrant in the United States.  The first is to enter illegally, usually across the Southwest border.  Those folks are sometimes called EWIs, short for entered without inspection.  The second way to become an illegal immigrant is to enter legally and then lose legal status, often by overstaying a temporary visa.  

The majority of new illegal immigrants were EWIs until recently.  A recent paper by Robert Warren and Donald Kerwin at the Center for Migration Studies found that overstays accounted for 58 percent of new illegal immigrants in 2012, a rapid increase over the course of a decade (Chart 1).

Chart 1

Overstays as a Percent of all Illegal Entries


Source: Warren and Kerwin.


At an immigration hearing last week, several witnesses emphasized that continued illegal immigrant entries along the Southwest border and a rising percentage of overstays mean that America’s immigration system is insecure.  In contrast, the higher overstay rate is evidence of fewer illegal immigrants crossing the border as EWIs. 

In calculating the percent of new illegal immigrants who are overstays, the number of EWIs is in the denominator added to the number of overstays.  The number of overstays is the numerator.  The falling number of illegal immigrants crossing the Southwest border without inspection shrinks the denominator on its own, thus boosting the overstay rate.  The surge in the overstay rate is not a lack of security at points of entry and exit but caused by a yuuuuge fall in illegal immigrants crossing the border. 

As evidence for that, I kept Warren and Kerwin’s estimates of the overstay population unchanged but held constant at 2000 levels the number of illegal immigrants entering without inspection.  In other words, I didn’t change the flows in the overstay population but just froze the number of illegal immigrants entering without inspection at the higher 2000 number.  Doing that lowers the 2012 overstay rate to 24 percent – less than half of the rate it actually was and lower than at any point during the entire 30 year period in their paper.

Warren and Kerwin admit that their overstay rate results are sensitive to their estimates of EWIs and how many overstays actually stay long enough to become illegal immigrants.  Small changes in those numbers can shift their findings dramatically.  However, the relationship between the number of CBP apprehensions and the overstay rate supports my simple point (Chart 2).  As the number of apprehensions fell because fewer immigrants attempted to enter the United States, overstays provided a greater percentage of new illegal immigrants.

Five Absurd Overreactions to the Surge in Child Migrants

The surge of unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) that dominated the news cycle in June and July of this year has receded – so much so that many emergency shelters established to handle the inflow are shutting down.  At the height of the surge, many commentators and government officials expected 90,000 UAC to be apprehended by the end of the fiscal year (FY).  As the end of the FY approaches, the number of apprehended UAC stands at roughly 66,000 - far below the estimates.

Now that the surge has receded, here are some of the most absurd overreactions to it.  Never before have so many commentators been so angry over so few migrants.

1.  U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) quoted in “POLITIFACT: Deadly viruses part of border crisis?Tampa Bay Times (July 29).  

Rep. Gingrey said: “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” [Emphasis added]

Ebola is a terrifying virus and a recent outbreak in West Africa shared the headlines with the surge in UAC, but that doesn’t mean the two events are linked.  Rep. Gingrey’s office indicated that he heard about child migrants carrying Ebola from border agents.  The rest of us are still waiting to hear about it.

2.  Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Camp of the Saints, 2014 Style?” National Review Online (June 13).

Apparently the terrible consequences of an influx of child migrants, which was only equal to about 6 percent of the total number of legal immigrants admitted this year, was predicted by a controversial 1973 French novel entitled The Camp of the Saints – which described the end of Western Civilization due to an influx of third-world immigrants.

Owens’ comments reveal a Western tradition that should be abandoned – that every small issue signals the downfall of Western Civilization.            

3.  Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, “SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a fire threat to U.S. national security,” Military Times (July 8).

“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and illegal alien flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.” [Emphasis added]

There are certainly national security challenges that accompany America’s disastrous prosecution of the war on drugs and there is a security component to regulating immigration.  But it is quite a leap to go from pointing out problems that could potentially get worse to then stating they are “existential.”

Family Reunification and Other Explanations for the Border Surge of Unaccompanied Children

There are two main issues surrounding the increase in the migration of unaccompanied children (UAC) and asylum seekers in recent years that have recently reached crisis proportions.  The first is the treatment of those children who are apprehended by Border Patrol and how American policy is reacting to the surge. 

The second is explaining why UACs are coming.  Below I will lay out three different theories that attempt to explain the surge in UACs.  Each theory has some merit and I present evidence in support and opposition to each one.  

First Explanation: Family Reunification

Immigration by stages and family reunification could explain part of the UAC border surge.  Stage migration works like this:  First, the single breadwinner of the family immigrates to find work in the United States.  After getting established, finding employment, and figuring out how to function in his new country, the initial immigrant then sends for the rest of his family.  Sometimes the initial immigrant’s spouse will come alone while leaving the children in the care of extended family.  Often times, after the second parent is working, they will then have the funds to send for the children to join them in the United States. 

This pattern of family separation through stage immigration and eventual reunification is a desperate strategy undertaken by poor people who don’t have any other options.  Regardless, it explains part of the surge in unaccompanied children who are joining their unlawful immigrant parents and families who previously arrived in the United States.

Smuggling prices for unauthorized immigrants from Central America are higher than for unauthorized Mexican immigrants.  Mexicans pay about $4000 to be smuggled to the United States by land and $9000 to be smuggled in by sea.  Guatemalans pay about $7000.  But since Guatemalans are so much poorer than Mexicans, on average, it can take many more years for them to save for the trip, often meaning that both parents are more likely to come to the United States first to work and send money back to Guatemala to finance the sending of their children.  As a result, many of the children would come alone. 

The price of human smuggling has risen substantially due to increased U.S. border enforcement.  The higher price of migrating and the relative poverty of Central American migrants mean that families are more likely to be separated during the migration process, explaining part of the surge in UACs from Central America.  Ironically, increased border enforcement and crackdowns on human smugglers have probably caused more family separation and eventual reunification – partly explaining the scale of the current UAC migration.