January 4, 2019 12:17PM

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?

 

November 20, 2017 8:12AM

Border Patrol Checkpoints Do Not Work — End Them

Data from a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that interior checkpoints manned by Border Patrol agents are a poor use of resources, at least from an enforcement perspective. Border Patrol checkpoints would have to have apprehended about 100,000 to 120,000 more illegal immigrants from FY2013-2016 than they actually did to justify the man-hours spent occupying them by agents. Even those who support expanding immigration enforcement along the border should recognize that checkpoints are a waste of scarce border security resources. 

Border Patrol agents man checkpoints within 100 miles of the U.S. border where they can stop motorists, inquire about immigration status, and enforce other laws. Checkpoints are a significant risk to civil liberties and are expensive to run. Supporters argue that checkpoints are effective at enforcing federal laws against illegal immigration and drugs, although Border Patrol officials state that they are more concerned about the former. However, the number of illegal immigrant apprehensions, drug seizures by weight, and the deployment of Border Patrol man-hours to checkpoints show that they are not a good use of resources if the goal is to enforce immigration and drug laws.

Figure 1 comes from data reported by the GAO for FY2013-2016. About 9.4 percent of all man-hours worked by Border Patrol were at checkpoints but they only apprehended 3.1 percent of all illegal immigrants apprehended and 5.4 percent of all marijuana seized by weight, at best. At worst, Border Patrol apprehended only 1.9 percent of all illegal immigrants at checkpoints (this same number estimate is not reported for marijuana seizures). This means that Border Patrol agents would have to have apprehended 101,219 to 120,978 more illegal immigrants from FY2013-2016 at checkpoints than they actually did in order for their expenditure of man-hours to be proportional to their apprehensions. 

Border Patrol would have had to seize about 410,952 more pounds of marijuana at checkpoints from FY2013-2016 for their man-hours expenditure there to be proportional to the amount of the drug that they seized. Each unit of time that a Border Patrol agent spends at checkpoints results in fewer apprehensions and marijuana seizures than the same unit of time does spend enforcing those laws outside of checkpoints.

Figure 1

Border Patrol Man-Hours, Marijuana Seized by Weight, and Immigrant Apprehensions by Location, FY2013-2016

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Source: Author’s Calculations from GAO.



The allocation of Border Patrol man-hours and the percent of illegal immigrant apprehensions by location comes from pages 29 and 41, respectively, of the GAO report. The marijuana seizures by weight come from page 81, where I multiplied the number of seizures by the maximum possible weight in each category, standardizing for ounces. For the category of marijuana seizures that weighed 250 pounds or more, I assumed that the average seizure was 500 pounds. Marijuana seizures by Border Patrol that weighed 250 pounds or more were only about 1.8 percent of seizures and only 3.7 percent of them occurred at checkpoints so any error from my over-or-underestimation of 500 pounds doesn’t much change the result. 

Defenders of checkpoints could argue that they deter illegal immigration, so the best measurement of their effectiveness is not necessarily the number that they do actually apprehend at checkpoints. By occupying checkpoints, Border Patrol agents could divert illegal immigrants and drugs into the hands of Border Patrol agents occupying other non-checkpoint locations. Thus, checkpoints wouldn’t get the apprehension or seizure credit even though they would deserve much of it. Those are defensible theoretical arguments but they lack evidentiary support. Border Patrol should provide that support to justify its seemingly wasteful deployment of agents to checkpoints.

A simple comparative static analysis of man-hours spent on Border Patrol checkpoints shows that they result in apprehending far fewer illegal immigrants and seize less marijuana, per man-hour, than Border Patrol manpower deployed elsewhere. The government needs to make a reasonable case for why this seemingly inefficient allocation of Border Patrol resources to checkpoints is wise. If they cannot do that then they should shut down the checkpoints and stop harassing motorists

April 13, 2017 12:37PM

GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration's "Muslim ban" has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism--violent Salafists or traditional "right wing" extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it's the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO's report:




Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal "countering violent extremism" (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states "Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence."

With respect to the alleged role of Salafist ideology in motivating domestic acts of terror, the Brennan Center study quotes the FBI's own assessment on the topic:


It is difficult to quantify the degree to which Islamist materials and ideologues — such as Anwar al-Aulaqi (US Person), Abdullah e-Faisal, and Feiz Muhammed, all of whom appeal to English-speaking audiences — played a part in the radicalization of the persons included in this assessment. ... While Internet personalities are often cited as a source of radicalization, factors outside the scope of this assessment — such as social environment and personal psychology (how a person processes both external and internal messaging) — were also influential. 

As for claims that there are a combination of indicators that, if detected early enough, can tell family, friends, or local authorities who may be on the path to terrorism, the Brennan Center report uses the research and conclusions of former CIA officer Marc Sageman to rebut the notion. "...we still do not know what leads people to engage in political violence. Attempts to discern a terrorist ‘profile’ or to model terrorist behavior have failed to yield lasting insights.” 

That hasn't stopped the FBI, via it's now-infamous "Don't Be A Puppet" website, from continuing to peddle the debunked "terrorist profile" concept. And as the Brennan Center report lays out, the FBI is only one of a number of federal, state, or local entities using discredited "terrorist profile" models.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House members who originally requested that GAO look at federal CVE programs--including Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-MO), along with House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-MS)--did not ask GAO to evaluate the theories and assumptions underlying federal CVE programs. Accordingly, the audit offers recommendations for tinkering with programs that discriminatorily and disproportionately target the Arab/Muslim-American community on the basis of long-since debunked notions about who and why someone becomes a terrorist. 

House and Senate members need to base federal counterterrorism policies on facts--such as the role U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world plays in fueling terrorism. Members of Congress who want to win the war of "hearts and minds" vis a vis ISIS need to remember that our greatest weapon is a strict adherence to constitutional norms of free association and speech, and that targeting fellow citizens of Arab descent or the Muslim faith for evidence-free surveillance and political repression only validates the ISIS narrative that America is at war with the Muslim and Arab world.

 

March 11, 2014 8:47AM

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help: School Lunch Edition

How much does a "free" school lunch cost?

In the last few years, First Lady Michelle Obama has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school lunches healthier. In 2011, Neal McCluskey argued that, though well-intentioned, the changes would result in more wasted food, higher costs, and major implementation challenges. The General Accounting Office has now issued a report that confirms these concerns:

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.

When such decisions are made at the local level, schools can solicit and respond to feedback from parents and students. However, when the proverbial faceless bureaucrat in some distant Washington office decides, the rules tend to be uniform and inflexible, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences:

The federal government’s changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit...

One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government’s minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.

Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.

In other words, the so-called "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

Two-thirds of states reported on the GAO survey that implementation in 2012-13 was a "very great challenge" or an "extreme challenge." The report noted that much of the difficulty was related to the sheer volume of regulations. In just 18 months, the USDA issued 1,800 pages of "guidance" for following the new rules. Moreover, the "guidance" was "provided too late in the 2012-2013 school year to be helpful" because schools "had already planned menus and trained food service staff" on what they thought the new rules required. However, some guidance memos "either substantively changed or contradicted aspects of previously issued memos." When state officials contacted the USDA's regional offices for guidance on understanding the "guidance," the USDA staff were "sometimes unable to answer state questions on the guidance." 

Let's hope this serves as a cautionary tale for those who want the federal government to play a larger role in education policy in general.

June 8, 2011 11:16AM

Are Even Dems Getting Tired of Anti‐​Profit Crusade?

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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) held his fifth -- and perhaps final -- Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee show-hearing lambasting for-profit colleges. As usual, it was a decidedly one-sided affair, with no profit-defenders apparently invited to testify, and Republican committee members boycotting. Perhaps the only interesting thing that occurred was Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who has never given any indication he doesn't support Harkin's obsessive whale hunt, saying the proceedings could have benefitted from more than one point of view. According to MarketWatch, Franken lamented that “it would have been nice to have someone here to represent the for-profit schools.” Now, he might have only wanted a for-profit rep there to receive the beating, but even that would have been preferable to no rep at all.

Could this indicate that even Senate Democrats are getting tired of Harkin's tedious grandstanding against for-profit colleges, especially now that the Education Department has issued its "gainful employment" rules? Maybe, and there are lots of Dems in the House who have opposed the attack on for-profit schools for some time. But don't expect this to be over quite yet: Harkin still gets a lot of negative media coverage for proprietary schools with each hearing, while the scandals surrounding people he's had testify; the decrepit GAO "secret shopper" report that turned out to be hugely inaccurate; and potentially dirty dealings behind the gainful employment rules seem only to get real ink from Fox News and The Daily Caller. And Harkin keeps indicating that he will introduce legislation -- doomed to failure though it may be -- to curb for-profits even further.

Of course, what should be the biggest source of outrage in all of this is that while Harkin fixates on for-profit schools, Washington just keeps on enabling all of higher education to luxuriate in ever-pricier, taxpayer-funded opulence. Indeed, as a new Cato report due out next week will show, putatively nonprofit universities are likely making bigger profits on undergraduate students than are for-profit institutions. Of course, they don't call them "profits" -- nonprofits always spend excess funds, thus increasing their "costs" -- but that's probably just plain smart. Be honest about trying to make a buck, and Sen. Harkin has shown just what's likely to befall you.

April 15, 2011 3:52PM

TSA: If You Object to Giving Up Your Rights, We Should Take a Closer Look at You

TSA screeners and behavior detection officers may give you extra attention if you complain about security protocols (video at the jump). Former FBI agent Michael German sums up my feelings pretty well:

It's circular reasoning where, you know, I'm going to ask someone to surrender their rights; if they refuse, that's evidence that I need to take their rights away from them. And it's simply inappropriate.

In related news, the GAO recently told Congress that the TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) is not scientifically grounded. The GAO testimony is available here.

More Cato work on TSA screening here, here and here.

March 4, 2011 10:06AM

The Other For‐​Profit College Scandal

Because the evidence of wrongdoing and evasion is so clear, and the effect has been so damaging, I have devoted a lot of pixels to the GAO's horrendous "secret shopper" report on for-profit colleges, as well as the stonewalling about what caused the initial report to be so biased. A potentially even bigger story, though, is what appears to be the machinations of an unholy alliance of Department of Education officials, Senate HELP Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Wall Street short-sellers hoping to make big bucks off the demise of for-profit schools. This Daily Caller article, and the connected video of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), are good places to start learning more about this, as is the website of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The problems with understanding scandals like this, of course, are trying to get the truth about things that have gone on almost entirely in real or virtual back rooms; knowing what is legal and what isn't; and just figuring out who's who. Such scandals also reveal little about whether for-profit schools are actually more or less effective than other higher ed sectors, arguably the main public policy concern.

What this sort of thing does start to reveal, though, is just how far out of public view policy is often made, as well as how people try to profit directly from government action. In other words, it's a great case study in public-choice theory, and just how un-Schoolhouse Rock Washington really is.

So I can't tell you everything about who said what to whom. However, at the very least it is clear, for instance, that famed short seller Steve Eisman had a huge amount to gain by testifying that for-profits are bad and there is a "bubble" in proprietary higher ed about to burst. After all, were either the Education Department or Senator Harkin -- or both -- to use his testimony to attack for profits, as indeed they have, Eisman would have a highly profitable self-fulfilling prophecy on his hands.

No matter how you feel about for-profit colleges -- and my feelings are decidedly mixed-- learning about how policy is really made can be a very unsettling thing. In fact, it can make you feel more than just a little sick.