Tag: dhs

The Cost of the Border Wall Keeps Climbing and It’s Becoming Less of a Wall

Social scientist Bent Flyvbjerg described the selection of government-funded infrastructure projects as “survival of the unfittest” because proponents of those projects systematically exaggerate the benefits and underestimate the costs.  President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico provides a striking example of this: A wall along the border with Mexico will likely cost about $59.8 billion to construct.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently sent a letter to Congress where it argued that $5.7 billion would pay for approximately 234 miles of a new physical steel barrier along the border.  That new estimate comes to about $24.4 million per mile.  This new OMB estimate is 41 percent more costly than the approximately $17.3 million per mile construction costs that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated just a few years ago, 2.7 times as expensive as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan estimated, and 5 times as expensive as Trump’s lowest estimate

Even worse, the $24.4 million per mile estimate does not include the large cost overruns for government construction projects.  Applying a conservative 50 percent cost overrun estimate to building the border fence brings the total price tag to approximately $36.6 million per mile.  Building a steel fence along the remaining 1,637 miles of Mexican border not covered by pedestrian fencing would cost approximately $59.8 billion, excluding any maintenance costs. 

There are a few caveats about the above estimate.

First, the 50 percent cost overrun estimate is conservative.  A small sample of large construction projects selected by my colleague Chris Edwards shows that cost overruns boost total project costs by an average of 3.3 fold.  The cost of the border fence is thus very likely to be more than double what I estimate above.

Second, this estimate is for the steel bollard barrier and not a concrete wall.  In other words, the currently proposed steel border fence is far cheaper than the concrete and steel wall originally proposed by President Trump.  Making it out of concrete could more than double the price.

Third, our cost estimate does not include the low-ball $864,353 annual per mile cost of maintaining the current border fence – which is likely a lot less expensive than repairing the barrier that has been proposed by Trump. 

Fourth, the OMB’s cost estimate per wall is more in line with previous Trump administration requests than estimates made by organizations that are ideologically committed to building a wall regardless of the cost to taxpayers.    

Since 2017, administration officials at the OMB have been relatively consistent in estimating that the government cost of building a border wall is around $24 million per mile.  However, the incentives for and history of government agencies systematically underestimating the costs of government construction projects makes this the lowest possible estimate.  If it is built for about $24.3 million per mile than it would be the first time that a large government construction project has come in at or below cost in a very long time.

The cost of the border wall keeps getting higher, the border wall keeps becoming less of a wall, and the administration keeps promising that it will cover less and less of the border.  At this rate, President Trump might end his administration with less fencing than he began it. 

The Government Doesn’t Understand Its Own Immigration and Crime Data

On March 6, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13780.  The order was mostly concerned with reducing the number of immigrants and travelers from certain countries that his administration thought could pose a terror risk.  One portion of that Executive Order called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate the number of terrorist threats and, little noticed at the time, “information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.” 

The DOJ-DHS released their report in January 2018 and almost everybody focused on the terrorism portion – including myself and my colleagues here at Cato.  However, thanks to a brilliant lawsuit that uncovered how shoddy the report was, it is now clear that it made an absolutely false statement about the number of foreign-born people arrested for sex offenses.  The DOJ-DHS report says:

Regarding sex offenses, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2011 produced an estimate regarding the population of criminal aliens incarcerated in state prisons and local jails from fiscal years 2003 through 2009. In that report, GAO estimated that over that period, aliens were convicted for 69,929 sex offenses—which, although not explicitly stated in the report, in most instances constitutes gender-based violence against women.

The DOJ-DHS authors of the report made two errors that others have made in interpreting that exact GAO report, many of whom I’ve criticized

First, 69,929 is the number of arrests for sex offenses where the arrestees were criminal aliens, not the number of sex offenses for which criminal aliens were convicted as the DOJ-DHSclaimed.

Second, those arrests occurred from 1955 through 2010, not from 2003 through 2009.

At least the DOJ-DHS have admitted they misinterpreted the GAO report – further vindication that Peter Kirsanow made numerous errors when he was given three full minutes to monologue on it last August on the Tucker Carlson Show.  Kirsanow wouldn’t appear with me on the show after that segment to debate me – I’ll let you guess the reason why.

The biggest problem here isn’t that the DOJ-DHS authors of that report didn’t read the fine print, although that is worrying, or that they likely let their political bias cloud their research findings.  The biggest problem here is that the GAO report misleads more than it illuminates and provides a legitimate looking citation for erroneous claims that are difficult to check.  The GAO is a more professional and less political department than the DOJ or DHS, at least when it comes to investigating and publishing the results of empirical research.  The GAO should retract the report and the later 2018 version that have both been so misinterpreted, rewrite them so that they are crystal clear, re-release them with a list of corrections from the previous editions, and include an FAQ section with answers.   If current government bureaucrats at the DOJ and DHS as well as former bureaucrats like Peter Kirsanow have trouble understanding the GAO report, then clearly the GAO needs to fix the problem and try to prevent it from occurring in the future.  Otherwise, what is the point of the GAO?

 

Another Confusing Federal Report on Immigrant Incarceration

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security (DOJ/DHS) will be publishing a quarterly report on immigrant incarceration in federal prisons because of an Executive Order issued by President Trump last year.  The most recent report found that 20 percent of all inmates in federal prison are foreign-born and about 93 percent of them are likely illegal immigrants.  Since immigrants are only about 13.5 percent of the population and illegal immigrants are only about a quarter of all immigrants, many are misreading it and coming away with the impression that foreign-born people are more crime-prone than natives. 

That is simply not true.

This new DOJ/DHS report only includes those incarcerated in federal prisons, which is not a representative sample of all incarcerated persons in the United States.  Federal prisons include a higher percentage of foreign-born prisoners than state and local correctional facilities because violations of immigration and smuggling laws are federal offenses and violators of those laws are incarcerated in federal prisons.        

The report itself almost admits as much with this important disclaimer: 

This report does not include data on the alien populations in state prisons and local jails because state and local facilities do not routinely provide DHS or DOJ with comprehensive information about their inmates and detainees—which account for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. incarcerated population.

Introducing “Checkpoint: America”

Today, the Cato Institute is launching a new online initiative: Checkpoint America: Monitoring the Constitution-Free Zone.

For over 60 years, the executive branch has, through regulatory fiat, imposed a “border zone” that extends as much as 100 miles into the United States. Within this area–which, according to the ACLU, encompasses two-thirds of the U.S. population–are a series of Soviet-style internal checkpoints run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service. The majority of these stretch across the southwestern United States from southern Calfornia to the Texas Gulf Coast. As outlined below, CBP agents operating these checkpoints routinely violate the constitutional rights of citizens and other who are forced to pass through them to get to work, go to the store, or make it to a vacation destination in the American Southwest.

Because these checkpoints can be either fixed or mobile, research for this project involved the use of multiple data sources to help provide precise geolocational data and detailed physical descriptions of a given fixed checkpoint, or, where captured on overhead imagery, a temporary checkpoint. In particular, prior reports by the Government Accountability Office (2009 and 2017), as well as Google Earth and the Streetview functionality in Google Maps, were critical in helping pinpoint existing checkpoints and making possible relatively precise physical descriptions of the facilities and equipment present at each. The ACLU, including it’s Arizona chapter, also provided valuable data.

The need for this project, and for greater scrutiny of these checkpoints, is more pressing than ever.

New Government Terrorism Report Provides Little Useful Information

The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice (DHS/DOJ) released a report this morning on the threat of international terrorism.  This report was required by President Donald Trump’s executive order that, among other things, originally established the infamous travel ban.  The new DHS/DOJ report produces little new information on immigration and terrorism and portrays some misleading and meaningless statistics as important findings.  Interestingly, the draft version of the report had more interesting and useful information that was mysteriously edited out of the final public version.  It’s remarkable that, given almost a year to produce such a report and with the vast resources of the federal government combined with reams of government information unavailable to the public, that they were able to produce a report of so little of value.     

The DHS/DOJ report found that about 73 percent of those convicted of international terrorism-related offenses from 9/11 through the end of 2016 were foreign-born.  That means that 27 percent of them were native-born Americans.  By focusing exclusively on international terrorism-related charges, this report intentionally ignores domestic terrorists unaffiliated with international terrorists.  Thus, the results of the DHS/DOJ report are, at best, a snapshot of the international subset of terrorism that ignores the purely domestic variety. 

The DHS/DOJ report ignores the most important statistic: how many people were actually killed by these terrorists on U.S. soil.  In our updated terrorism information that runs through the end of 2017, we found that a total of 155 people were killed on U.S. soil in terrorist attacks since January 1, 2002, 34 of them by foreign-born terrorists and 121 of them by domestic terrorists (going back to September 12, 2001 does not add any deaths by identifiable terrorists on U.S. soil but would diminish the chance of dying, so I excluded it from this blog post to bias the results against me).  Since the beginning of 2002, native-born Americans were responsible for 78 percent of all murders in terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil while foreign-born terrorists only committed 22 percent.  Including the actual number of deaths caused by terrorists flips the DHS/DOJ statistics on its head.     

From the beginning of 2002 through 2017, about the period of time covered by the DHS/DOJ report, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a native-born American on U.S. soil was about one in 40.6 million per year.  During the same period, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was about one in 145 million per year.  The total chance was about one in 32 million a year.  To put that one in 32 million a year chance in perspective, the annual chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide was about one in 19,325 per year or about 1,641 times as great as being killed in any terrorist attack since 9/11.  These numbers are based on updated and expanded data that we plan on publishing in the near future (available upon request). 

The DHS/DOJ report found that at least 549 people were convicted of international terrorism-related charges in federal court from 9/11 to the end of 2016.  These are fewer than the 627 convictions that the DOJ reported through the end of 2015.  What accounts for the 78 fewer convictions over a longer period?  The DHS/DOJ report does not attempt to reconcile their report here with what they have reported previously.  Furthermore, the DHS/DOJ report does not supply the relevant information about the numbers of convictions for terrorism-related offenses, their names, or the actual offenses they committed.  The DHS/DOJ report should have published this information just as the government has done in the past in request to FOIAs.

The DHS/DOJ relies on “terrorism-related convictions” as their important metric, a definition that encompasses numerous convictions that have nothing to do with terrorism.  There is no definition of “terrorism-related” as a crime in U.S. statutes.  The phrase “terrorism-related” appears mostly in reference to actions of government officials in response to terrorism such as a “terrorism-related travel advisory.”  The anti-terrorism Information Sharing Environment, which integrates information which the GAO, defines “terrorism-related” as relating to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” That is a definition that so broad “terrorism-related” is not synonymous with “terrorism.” 

The DHS/DOJ report reveals that the DHS had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list via the FBI’s Terrorists Screening Database (TSDB) in FY 2017.  That means that DHS could have had multiple encounters with the same individuals who were all counted as separate “encounters.”  The TSDB includes the identities of hundreds of thousands of known and suspected terrorists who are both native-born Americans, foreign-born travelers and immigrants to the United States, and foreigners who have not traveled here.  According to a DOJ audit of the TSDB, frontline officers conducted about 270 million checks against the TSDB every month in 2007 with a total of about 3.24 billion checks per year.  Assuming those numbers were unchanged for FY 2017, even though that number has likely increased, and that only 10 percent of them were conducted by DHS, means that about 0.0008 percent of all TSDB checks conducted by DHS resulted in a TSDB hit, or about one for about every 127,000 checks.  That does sound dangerous until you realize that people flagged by the TSDB are not necessarily terrorists.  Even U.S. Senators and Congressmen have been included on the TSDB list.  Getting one’s name on the TSDB list is easy but getting off is very difficult.  As the DOJ audit of the TSDB noted:

[O]ur file review found that the State Department and the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection did not revise encounter records in a screening database in a timely fashion to reflect modified or removed terrorist identities.

Thus, the DHS/DOJ reported TSDB encounters statistic is virtually meaningless.  It’s a count of people the government is concerned about without evidence or a clear way of being removed.  The DHS/DOJ report could have told us how many of these folks actually committed a terrorist attack, eventually did so over time, or were arrested for a terrorism offense but they missed that opportunity. 

The DHS/DOJ report on international terrorism reveals little new information on the international terrorist threat to Americans on U.S. soil.  Unusual for a government report on terrorism, it isn’t even capable of providing many scary-sounding statistics that could frighten people.  While that last point is an improvement, future reports on this topic should seek to provide information on this important topic that isn’t publicly known.  This report fails to do that.

New Report on Illegal Immigrant Criminality Reveals Little & Admits Its Own Shortcomings

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) today released a report that found that about 94 percent of foreign-born inmates in Federal prisons are illegal immigrants.  That is not surprising, as illegal immigrants convicted of an immigration offense are incarcerated in federal prison and account 7.3 percent of all inmates.  Likewise, drug traffickers who cross international borders are also in federal prison and account 46.3 percent of all prisoners.  Thus, illegal immigrants are overrepresented in federal prison because the federal government enforces immigration laws and many drug trafficking laws but only a small fraction of all those incarcerated for all crimes committed in the U.S. are in federal prisons. 

The authors of this DHS/DOJ report do deserve credit for highlighting its shortcomings.  On the first page, it states:

This report does not include data on the foreign-born or alien populations in state prisons and local jails because state and local facilities do not routinely provide DHS or DOJ with comprehensive information about their inmates and detainees.  This limitation is noteworthy because state and local facilities account for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. incarcerated population.

The federal prison population is not representative of incarcerated populations on the state and local level, so excluding them from the report means that it sheds little light on nationwide incarcerations by nativity, legal status, or type of crime.  On the last point, it is shocking how unrepresentative federal prison is regarding the types of crimes its inmates are convicted of. In 2016, 67,742 people were sentenced to federal prison.  Almost 30 percent of them were for immigration offenses.  Those immigration convictions comprised 100 percent of the convictions for immigration crimes in the United States in 2016.  By contrast, there were only 85 federal convictions for murder out of a nationwide total of 17,785 murder convictions that year, comprising less than 0.5 percent of all murders.

Are We Safe Enough?

It was on the 16th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attack, as it happens, that the Government Accountability Office posted its reply to a request by six members of Congress to review the Transportation Security Commission’s aviation security measures.

The GAO was none too happy with what it found. In particular, it faulted the TSA for failing to set up a coherent system to analyze the cost and effectiveness of its various counterterrorism measures—many of them quite expensive. And it was specifically critical of TSA’s inability to evaluate the degree to which its layers of security deter attacks.

The following day, Elsevier published a book Mark Stewart and I have written, titled Are We Safe Enough? Measuring and Assessing Aviation Security. Among other things, the book tries (successfully, we think) to do exactly what the GAO asked for. A free Google preview of portions of the book is available at the publisher’s website, and further information about the book is posted here.

The TSA, says GAO, has put together a (secret) tool called RTSPA (you don’t want to know what that stands for) to analyze the effectiveness of its security layers. However, the tool only applies to a subset of the layers and is, according to GAO, “resource intensive.”

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