Families and children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border turn themselves in to Border Patrol and receive background checks, which they virtually always pass, prior to their release into the country. Yet security officials insist that these migrants are nonetheless a serious security concern. These officials have relentlessly promoted one narrative in particular for years: that asylum-seeking families unwittingly help drug smugglers. Here are a few examples:
Border Patrol Union Spokesman Chris Cabrera, October 2015: Families “are human screens that tie up Border Patrol Agents while the cartels smuggle narcotics and higher value aliens behind them.”
Border Patrol Union President Brandon Judd, February 2016: They “completely tied up our manpower and allowed the cartels to smuggle whatever they wanted across our border.”
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, July 2018: “The way [smugglers] use families and children to tie up Border Patrol resources while they bring narcotics through an adjacent point of the border ... creates operational challenges and that’s exactly why we’re trying to prevent the vulnerable populations from crossing between ports of entry illegally because it takes time and energy and focus away from the hardened smugglers and criminals.”
Intuitively, the theory could make sense. If this were the case, it would even more strongly advise DHS to process all asylum seekers at ports of entry—which it refuses to do. But the evidence that we have lends no support for the belief that this phenomenon has made any significant changes in border drug trafficking.
Obviously, we can’t observe the drugs that escape Border Patrol’s notice, but Border Patrol’s statistics on drug interdiction reveal that families don't seem to have affected drug trafficking. They show that the average Border Patrol agent does not seize greater or fewer hard drugs when more families appear at the border. They don’t seize greater or fewer relative to officers at ports of entry. They don’t seize greater or fewer relative to other agents in sectors who received fewer families. Agents also don’t seize a greater share further in the interior, indicating that families turning themselves in close to the border likely did not allow more to slip past the front line.
These statistics lead to the conclusion that families have largely not affected drug smuggling. Even if families do act as a diversion, they appear no more effective than whatever diversions drug runners used before families and children started to arrive in larger numbers in 2014.
Families haven’t affected Border Patrol’s seizures
The absolute number of Border Patrol seizures and the pounds seized by Border Patrol have indeed declined, but this falloff is entirely due to fewer marijuana seizures. As I documented in my Cato policy analysis last year, U.S. state-level legalization starting in 2014 is driving the decline in marijuana seizures. Even Border Patrol has attributed the decline in seizures to the fact that “increase[d] legalization in the United States [h]as reduced demand” for Mexican marijuana, not to families or children distracting agents. For this reason, this post will focus on the three other drugs for which Border Patrol has regularly published data: cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.
Figure 1 compares the quarterly number of Border Patrol apprehensions of families and children per Border Patrol agent to the quarterly change in the amount of cocaine, meth, or heroin seized per agent. There are three dots for each quarter, representing the change in the amount seized for the three drug types from the prior period. During this time, greater apprehensions of families and children are not associated with larger or smaller seizures of drugs by Border Patrol. The trend is not significant.
In itself, Figure 1 shows that Border Patrol has the capacity to seize the same quantity of drugs regardless of the number of families and children it apprehends. But perhaps more drugs are coming overall, meaning that more are making it past the agents. If this is what is happening, it could imply that smugglers are shifting the locations of their smuggling efforts to take advantage of distracted agents.
One way that this could occur is that smugglers might move drugs away from the ports of entry to sneak them past agents apprehending families and children between ports. Figure 2 tests this by comparing the change in family and child apprehensions per agent to the change in the share of cocaine, meth, and heroin seizures made between ports of entry in a given quarter. Once again, there is no relationship between increases or decreases in families and children and changes in the share seized between ports. Again, the trend is not significant.
Another way that smuggling could shift is toward regions of the border where more families and children are crossing. Border Patrol has published regional data only for a single drug—cocaine—and only for fiscal years 2011 to 2018 (so not quarterly and over a shorter span). Nonetheless, this dataset allows us to track changes in seizure variation for cocaine between the nine Border Patrol sectors.
Figure 3 shows the relationship between changes in the share of apprehensions who were children or families in a sector and the change in that sector’s share of all cocaine seizures. If drug smugglers were shifting their traffic to different areas of the border in response to the location of apprehensions, or Border Patrol became less effective due to those apprehensions, we would expect to see an association between apprehensions and seizures—either up or down—but there is no difference.
Here’s a final test of this hypothesis. We know that families and children are turning themselves in close to the border. According to the GAO, 80 percent of apprehensions occurred within 10 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016. This was a 17-point increase prior to the surge in families in 2012. If a diversion effect exists at all, it should affect seizures closer to the border. As more drugs escape notice, the share of drugs seized further into the interior should rise.
Figure 4 compares the annual percentage point change in the share of all drug seizures that occurred more than 10 miles from the border in a sector to the percentage point change in the sector’s share of apprehensions more than 10 miles from the border (from 2013-2016). This is the number of seizure incidents—rather than pounds seized—and it includes all drugs, not just the three main hard drug types. A positive relationship would indicate that drug seizures generally follow apprehensions. A negative relationship would show that drug seizures occur further into the interior as apprehensions occur closer to the border. But surprisingly, there is no relationship, indicating that drug seizure activity was largely unaffected by the location of apprehensions.
Of course, these are all apprehensions, not just those for families and children. Focusing on this group, Figure 5 displays the annual percentage point change in the share of drug seizures (again, incidents rather than pounds) more than 10 miles from the border in a sector compared to the annual percentage point change in the sector’s share of family and child apprehensions. Once again, these two factors are not related. This strongly implies that a shift toward more families doesn’t result in more drugs getting past the frontline agents.
There are numerous other ways to slice the data—comparing absolute changes versus percentage changes or change in the share versus change in the absolute amount—but none of these other approaches reveal anything significant. The quarterly data doesn’t extend through 2019, which has seen the greatest number of families and children. Annual data have too few observations to be very useful, and 2019 is an outlier year anyway, but the 2019 seizure statistics so far don’t reveal anything particularly interesting through June. Overall, Border Patrol drug seizures are somewhat higher, but the share seized between ports of entry in 2019 has not changed significantly during the surge in families.
Although government officials latched onto the narrative that families were significantly benefiting drug smugglers, Customs and Border Protection initially denied any connection between the asylum seekers and drug smuggling when families first started coming in larger numbers in 2014. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel told the Washington Post in June 2014 that CBP has seen “no indication that drug interdiction operations have been negatively impacted by our efforts to process the influx” of migrants.
How is it possible that Border Patrol is doing as good of a job at stopping drug smuggling if families have diverted so many of its resources? First of all, while families might tie up resources with processing, they are much easier to “apprehend” than chasing single men through the desert, so it is not obvious exactly how many resources families consume relative to other types of crossers.
More significantly, hard drugs are almost exclusively smuggled through ports of entry because it is easier to conceal them in legal luggage than to conceal people walking across the U.S.-Mexico border—it’s also a lot less risky for the drug runner. Even with a decline in Border Patrol’s resources, it still isn’t worth it for narcotraffickers to significantly change their trafficking model and attempt to smuggle more between ports of entry.
In addition, the disappearance of marijuana smuggling has freed up a tremendous amount of resources for other enforcement activities. The agency is on pace to seize about 90 percent less marijuana in 2019 than in 2013—about 2.1 million fewer pounds. Busts also are likely down by about 70 percent—about 10,500 fewer. For comparison, Border Patrol made only 2,400 busts for all non-marijuana drugs in 2018.
The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment for 2018 predicted that “Mexico-produced marijuana will continue to be trafficked into the United States . . . though in declining amounts” because “domestic production and trafficking of marijuana will likely increase as more states adopt or change current marijuana laws.” In other words, the DEA is predicting that even more resources will become available for Border Patrol to deal with the asylum-seeking families along the border. There is no need to treat these peaceful immigrants as a national security threat.
Finally, families may indeed be diversions for drug runners, at least on occasion, but Border Patrol's statistics indicate that they are not significantly more effective at being a diversion than the methods smugglers used before they had families available to them. In other words, Border Patrol agents may be observing a real phenomenon, while not considering that if families weren't there, traffickers would just find another way to achieve the same ends.