Tag: caravan

45,000 “Special Interest Aliens” Caught Since 2007, But No U.S. Terrorist Attacks from Illegal Border Crossers

President Trump claimed last week that “people are pouring into our country, including terrorists.” This came after his unsubstantiated claim that Middle Easterners are traveling in the caravan. Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) fellow Todd Bensman has repeatedly defended these types of claims by equating immigrants from “countries of interest” with “terrorists.” This conflation is common and rarely challenged as Homeland Security officials and members of Congress frequently describe immigrants from these countries as a terrorist threat. Despite Border Patrol apprehending tens of thousands of foreign nationals from these countries of interest and many thousands more who have undoubtedly entered illegally, not a single person has been killed by a terrorist who entered as an illegal border crosser from any of the countries of interest.

Special Interest Alien Apprehensions

The terminology used to describe these immigrants varies considerably between sources. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General defined the term “specially designated countries” to mean countries “that have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar described “Special interest countries” as “basically countries designated by our intelligence community as countries that could export individuals that could bring harm to our country in the way of terrorism.”

These definitions could apply to nearly every country in the world, as just about every major country has “produced” or “exported” at least one terrorist. With several exceptions, the lists have consisted primarily of countries with large Muslim populations. The designated countries have changed repeatedly over the years:

In 2003, DHS released a list of 52 countries. In 2004, the list included 35 countries, two of which were new. In 2007, the list was referenced in a news article, and though the full list was not quoted, it included another country (Tanzania) that was not on either of the prior two lists. In 2018, DHS released yet another list of countries where CBP “had Enforcement Actions against aliens from the following ‘Special Interest Aliens’ countries for FY18.” This partial list included yet five more countries that were not on the prior lists. Altogether, these lists have contained 63 countries. Only 14 have shown up on all the lists.

From 2007 to 2017, Border Patrol apprehended 45,006 immigrants from any of the countries ever designated as a “country of interest” (See Table 1). During the same period, it apprehended 4,109 from countries that made it onto all three lists. Given the inconsistency in these lists and for sake of completeness, Figure 1 shows the annual number of special interest aliens apprehended by Border Patrol separated by the different lists and those apprehended from countries that appeared at least once on a single list.  Fiscal Year 2007 is the earliest year that Border Patrol has made the number of apprehensions by citizenship publicly available.

Figure 1: Special Interest Alien Border Patrol Apprehensions

The Migrant Caravan, Central America, and Vaccination Rates

Many commentators have recently written and said that members of the migrant caravan and Central American immigrants in general are diseased.  Former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Ward claimed that the migrants are “coming in with diseases such as smallpox,” a disease that the World Health Organization (WHO) certified as being eradicated in 1980.  One hopes Mr. Ward was more careful in enforcing American immigration law than in spreading rumors that migrants are carrying one of the deadliest diseases in human history nearly 40 years after it was eradicated from the human population.  But even on other diseases, Ward and others do not have a compelling argument.

WHO has national estimates of vaccination coverage rates by country and type of vaccine.  It’s unclear whether vaccination coverage rates include immigrants, but they definitely include those born in each country as of 2017.  Vaccination coverage rates for the United States were unavailable for Tuberculosis and one of the polio vaccines (IPV1) while the IPV1 vaccine coverage rate is also unavailable for Costa Rica.  We shouldn’t expect vaccination rates to be the same in all countries for at least two reasons.  First, some diseases are more prevalent in certain climates so the requirement for vaccination there can be lower or higher.  Second, vaccines have a positive externality so there is less of an individual incentive to become vaccinated as all of the benefits are not internalized to the individual who receives the shot.  I expect the first reason to be more important than the second as enough benefits are internalized for the net-benefit of a vaccine to be positive (yes, vaccines are great) while many of the governments in these countries strongly encourage or mandate vaccination. 

Figure 1 shows that average vaccination rates for Tuberculosis (BCG), Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP1), Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP3), Hepatitis B (HepB_BD), Hepatitis B (HepB3), Haemophilus Influenzae (Hib3), Polio (IPV1), Measles 1st Dose (MCV1), Measles 2nd Dose (MCV2), Streptococcus Pneumoniae (PCV3), Polio (Pol3), Rubella (RCV1), and Rotavirus (RotaC).  The United States is in the middle of the pack with an 89 percent average vaccination coverage rate.

Figure 1 Average Vaccination Coverage Rates

The following figures all show the vaccination coverage rates for different vaccines in Central American countries relative to the United States.  In some figures, some countries are excluded because there are no WHO estimates of their vaccination rates.  The United States does not have the highest vaccination coverage rate for any vaccine reported below.  Perhaps members of the migrant caravan have lower vaccination rates than their fellow countrymen or they are carrying other serious contagions that cannot be vaccinated against.  But for most of these illnesses below, you have more to fear from your fellow Americans than from Central Americans.

Figure 2 Tuberculosis (BCG) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 3 Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 4 Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 5 Hepatitis B (HepB_BD) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 6 Hepatitis B (HepB3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 7 Haemophilus Influenzae (Hib3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 8 Polio (IPV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 9 Measles 1st Dose (MCV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 10 Measles 2nd Dose (MCV2) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 11 Streptococcus Pneumoniae (PCV3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 12 Polio (Pol3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 13 Rubella (RCV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 14 Rotavirus (RotaC) Vaccination Coverage Rates

The Migrant Caravan Probably Doesn’t Contain Many Criminals

One concern about the caravan of Central American migrants making its way to the U.S. border is that it may contain criminals. Although we don’t know the identities or criminal histories of the actual people in the caravan, we can get an indication by looking at estimates of the incarceration rates of immigrants in the United States who come from the Central American countries where the caravan originated.

Hondurans are likely the largest contingent in the caravan. The Honduran incarceration rate in the United States was 1,130 per 100,000 Hondurans in 2016 (Figure 1). The incarceration rate of native-born Americans is about 25 percent higher than for those born in Honduras at 1,498 per 100,000 natives. In 2016, the incarceration rate for immigrants from all of Mexico and Central America is about 35 percent below that of native-born Americans. 

Figure 1: Incarceration Rate by Nationality of Birth Per 100,000, Ages 18-54, 2016

Figure 1 controls for the size of the population to create a meaningful comparison of incarceration rates between the national-origin groups. For instance, the incarceration rate for American natives is 1,498 per 100,000 American natives and the Mexican incarceration rate is 996 per 100,000 Mexican-born residents in the United States. The incarceration rate for all immigrants from Mexico and Central America was 970 per 100,000 immigrants from that part of the world.    

The data for the estimates in this blog come from the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS). These are estimates from the group quarters population for those aged 18-54. Figure 1 is an estimate because not all inmates in group quarters are in correctional facilities. Most inmates in the public-use microdata version of the ACS are in correctional facilities, but the data also include those in mental health and elderly care institutions and in institutions for people with disabilities. As a result, we narrowed the age range to 18-54 to exclude most of those in mental health and retirement facilities. 

Commenting on the likely criminality of members in the migrant caravan based on the incarceration rates of their co-nationals in the United States is not fully satisfying. People in the migrant caravan could be more crime-prone than their fellow countrymen in the United States, for instance. However, the incarceration rates of their fellow countrymen in the United States at least provide some evidence to cut through the political statements made without any evidence.    

Most of the members of the caravan will likely seek asylum in the United States while the others will try to enter unlawfully. The government will vet the asylum-seekers to identify serious criminals and national security threats. However, it is impossible to vet those who enter as illegal immigrants – which is one of the better arguments for allowing them to enter legally as they would then be subject to vetting.

Special thanks to Michelangelo Landgrave from crunching many of the numbers for this post.

President Trump Again Orders Troops to the Border

President Trump recently said that he would deploy troops to the Mexican border in response to the 3,000-4,000 Central American migrants and asylum seekers who are walking to the U.S. border.  This follows President Trump’s earlier deployment of about 4,000 National Guardsmen (2,100 troops remain) to the border to respond to another caravan earlier this year.  American Presidents have ordered troops to the border to assist in immigration enforcement several times when the flow of illegal immigrants was significantly greater than it is today.  Deploying additional troops to deal the approaching migrant caravan is unjustified and unnecessary. 

Previous U.S. presidents have deployed troops to the U.S. border to assist in immigration enforcement and drug interdiction.  The first such request after World War II was in 1954 when the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback (yes, that is what the government called it).  Then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell asked the U.S. Army to help round up and remove illegal immigrants.  According to Matt Matthews in his “The US Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective,” the Army refused to deploy troops for that purpose because it would disrupt training, cost too much money at a time of budget cuts, and it would have required at least a division of troops to secure the border.  Then-head of the INS General Swing remarked in 1954 that deploying U.S. Army troops on the border was a “perfectly horrible” idea that would “destroy relations with Mexico.”  It was also unnecessary. 

In 1954, the 1,079 Border Patrol agents made 1,028,246 illegal immigrant apprehensions or 953 apprehensions per agent that year along all U.S. borders.  For the entire border, Border Patrol agents collectively made 2,817 apprehensions per day in 1954 with a force that was 94 percent smaller than today’s Border Patrol.  In other words, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 2.6 illegal immigrants per day in 1954.  Neither President Eisenhower nor the Army considered that inflow of illegal immigrants to be large enough to warrant the deployment of troops along the border despite Brownell’s request.   

Earlier in 2018, President Trump ordered about 4,000 troops to help the 16,605 Border Patrol agents on the southwest border apprehend the roughly 1,000 Central American migrants from an earlier caravan.  About 2,100 of those troops remain.  At that time, there were about 16.6 Border Patrol agents for each Central American migrant.  As for the current caravan approaching, assuming the number does not decrease any further, there are 4 to 6 Border Patrol agents for each person traveling from Central America in this caravan.  It’s likely that troops deployed on the border will outnumber the most recent caravan when (if) it arrives.   

In fiscal year 2018, Border Patrol apprehended about 396,579 illegal immigrants or about 24 per Border Patrol agent over the entire year on the southwest border, which works out to one apprehension per Border Patrol agents every 15 days.  By that measure, Border Patrol agents in 1954 individually apprehended an average of 40 times as many illegal immigrants as Border Patrol agents did in 2018.  If the current caravan makes it to the United States border, it would add about one and a half days worth of apprehensions at the 1954 level.  Border Patrol should be able to handle this comparatively small number of asylum seekers and migrants without military aid as they have done so before many times with a much smaller force.

Other Border Deployments

Since 1982, most U.S. military deployments and operations along the Mexican border were intended to counter the import of illegal drugs.  Joint Task Force 6 was deployed to the border in 1989 to aid in drug interdiction.  The regular deployment of troops for that purpose ended in 1997 after a U.S. Marine shot and killed American citizen Esequiel Hernandez Jr.  By July of that year, Secretary of Defense William Cohen suspended the use of armed soldiers on the border for anti-drug missions. 

On May 15, 2006, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border as part of Operation Jump Start to provide a surge of border enforcement while the government was hiring more Border Patrol agents.  In 2006, there were about 59 apprehensions per Border Patrol agent or one per agent every four days.  Operation Jump Start ended on July 15, 2008.  In that year, there were an average of 41 apprehensions per agent or one apprehension every nine days per agent during the entire year.  President Obama also deployed 1,200 troops to the border in 2010 to assist Border Patrol, but they left in 2012.  In that year, Border Patrol agents on the southwest border individually apprehended an average of one illegal immigrant every 19 days. 

The two recent deployments to assist in enforcing immigration law along the border occurred when there were fewer apprehensions, represented by more days between each apprehension for each agent (Figure 1).  The higher the number for the blue line in Figure 1, the fewer people Border Patrol agents individually apprehend.  From about 1975 through 2006, the Border Patrol faced an annual inflow of illegal immigrants far larger than anything seen in recent years. 

Figure 1

The Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension on the Southwest Border, 1975-2018

Figure 1: Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension on the Southwest Border

In years and decades past, the average amount of time between Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants could be measured in hours while now it is measured in weeks.  The proposed deployment of American troops to the border at a time of low and falling illegal immigrant entries is an unnecessary waste of time and resources.  

Does the Migrant Caravan Pose a Serious Terrorism Risk?

Yesterday, President Trump tweeted that “unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the migrant caravan approaching the U.S. border. Vice President Pence later tried to justify President Trump’s comment by arguing that, “It is inconvincible that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.” Todd Bensman of the Center for Immigration Studies wrote that “the president was obviously referencing … ‘special interest aliens’ … U.S.-bound migrants moving along well-established Latin America smuggling routes from [Muslim] countries.” Perhaps President Trump was referencing special interest aliens but the clear implication is that they are potential terrorists who are using the caravan to sneak into the United States and murder Americans.  

The members of the migrant caravan will either apply for asylum at the U.S. border or try to enter illegally. From 1975 through the end of 2017, 9 Americans have been murdered in attacks committed on U.S. soil by 20 foreign-born terrorists who entered illegally or as asylees. During that time, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum seeker or an illegal immigrant was about 1 in 1.3 billion per year. Those estimates are based on this methodology with updated numbers. 

During that time, about 31.3 million illegal immigrants entered the U.S. illegally (most have since emigrated, legalized, or passed away) and about 732 thousand asylum seekers have been admitted. Nine of the 20 terrorists who entered did so as illegal immigrants, meaning that about 1 terrorist entered hidden amongst every 3.48 million illegal immigrants. They killed zero people in domestic terror attacks. The 11 terrorists who entered as asylum seekers murdered 9 people in terrorist attacks or about 1 murder for every 81,000 asylum seekers let in.    

Of those 9 terrorists who entered illegally, only 3 did so along the border with Mexico: Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka crossed as children with their parents in 1984. They are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. They were 3 conspirators in the incompetently planned Fort Dix plot that the FBI foiled in 2007, long after they became adults and more than two decades after they entered illegally. There is no evidence that the Fort Dix plot was more than 23 years in the making. 

As far as we can tell, virtually all the members of the migrant caravan come from Central America while the asylum-seeker and illegal immigrant terrorists who committed or attempted to commit attacks on U.S. soil came from Cuba, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Canada, Algeria, Somalia, Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. Not a single terrorist in any visa category came from Mexico or Central America during the 43-year period.

None of the above estimates are meant to imply that those asylum seekers or illegal immigrants who committed or attempted to commit attacks were terrorists when they entered. Some, like Ramzi Yousef, obviously did enter as terrorists but the Boston Bombers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev entered as children too young to be plotting a terrorist attack years later. My colleague David Bier has shown just how rare it is that a foreign-born terrorist intends to come to the United States and how infrequently the government fails to stop him or her. 

This issue is complicated by the recent statements of Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, who announced that his government “apprehended close to 100 persons completely involved with terrorists, with ISIS and we have not only detained them within our territory, but they have been deported to their country of origin.” Morales then stated that information about these supposed terrorists (like their names or countries of origin) was classified, which should raise a red flag as governments love to brag about their anti-terrorism actions with specifics even when such bragging is unjustified.

Even if we assume that some members of the migrant caravan are Middle Easterners who might pose a higher terrorism risk, that is still no good reason to bar the Central American migrants from applying for asylum. If some Middle Easterners are in this caravan, they too will be able to apply and face the same terrorism vetting procedures that work so well. There is little evidence that there are Middle Easterners in this caravan, even less that there are actual terrorists, and the risk from terrorists crossing the border has been tiny historically. This time could be different, but there is no real evidence to suggest that it is. Whatever problems may arise due to this caravan, the actual threat of terrorism from its members is very small.

Blame Mexico First

There are many aggravating tropes that keep reemerging in the debate over immigration policy but one of the worst is that every problem with the U.S. immigration system is the result of the supposedly perfidious Mexico.  Changes in Mexican law and policy certainly have an impact on immigration to the United States but it is not true that our laws would operate wonderfully even if foreign governments had policies to support them.  Those who blame Mexico should, at the minimum, get their stories straight. 

In many versions of this tale, the Mexican government is hypocritical because its immigration laws are strict yet it complains about laws like SB 1070 in Arizona and the deportation of Mexican citizens from the United States.  Talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh famously used this rhetorical tactic when sarcastically (maybe?) proposing a series of immigration reforms that mirrored the worst of Mexican immigration law in 2007.          

The Mexican government fiercely criticized the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, a bill that forced state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.  When then-President of Mexico Felipe Calderon visited the White House and intended to complain about the law directly to President Obama, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) said, “I wonder if they’ll discuss whether or not Calderon supports his own country’s immigration policy.”  Both Limbaugh and Poe rightly criticized Mexico’s famously restrictive, self-destructive, and hypocritical immigration policy.

Partly in response to the American criticism, Mexico gradually reformed its immigration laws beginning in 2008.  In that year, Mexico reduced the punishment for illegal entry to a maximum fine of 5,000 pesos, down from a potential ten-year prison sentence.  They also created a temporary agricultural guest worker visa program for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states.  In 2010, the Mexican government stated that illegal immigrants would not have to fear immigration enforcement when reporting human rights violations or receiving medical treatment. 

The Mexican government did not stop there.  The Mexican Congress passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012.  This law replaced the Mexican General Law of Population that was the source of their restrictive immigration laws.  Among other things, the new Mexican immigration law allowed immigrants and migrants equal access to Mexican courts, reduced the power of local police to enforce immigration law, reformed the humanitarian admissions system, simplified entrance and reduced residency requirement by, in part, creating a points system, and created a three-day regional visitor’s visa for people from neighboring countries.  In other words, Mexico liberalized and expanded its legal immigration system.  Although Mexican reforms did not go far enough, they were a significant step away from protectionism toward a more liberal immigration regime. 

Shortly after the Migratory Act of 2011 went into effect, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended by Border Patrol skyrocketed (Figure 1).  The change in Mexican immigration law allowed Central Americans to travel to the U.S. border in greater numbers which, combined with the worsening economic and crime problems in Central America, helped exacerbate a surge of non-Mexican (OTM) illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were overwhelmingly from south of Mexico’s border (Figure 2).  Other non-Mexican legal changes like the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement, that created a visa-less Central America among El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, also made it cheaper for migrants or UAC from those countries to make it to Mexico and then to the United States.    

 

Figure 1

Southwest Border Monthly Border Patrol Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children

Source: Customs and Border Protection.