International Economics, Development & Immigration

December 5, 2019 9:51AM

Despite More Staff, CBP Says “No Resources” To Process Asylum Applicants At Ports

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has taken a series of unprecedented actions to limit the ability of immigrants to request asylum in the United States. But among its earliest and most consequential decisions was to cap the number of migrants who it would process for asylum at ports of entry. This policy clearly violates federal law. More importantly, it forces asylum seekers to remain homeless in squalid and desperate conditions in dangerous Mexico border cities, leading many to cross illegally.

The American Immigration Council and Al Otro Lado have challenged the policy (the government calls it “metering”) in court, and the government has argued that it lacks the resources to process undocumented migrants who arrive at ports to request asylum. In other words, it is violating the law because it simply physically cannot follow it. The challengers argue that this is a mere pretext for keeping out asylum seekers, and administration officials comments seem to confirm that this is the intention.

The data support their contention that the Trump administration has artificially reduced the capacity of ports without any reduction in resources for ports. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CBP provided me the number of CBP Office of Field Operation (OFO) officers permanently assigned to southwest border ports of entry. CBP-OFO processes documented and undocumented travelers who apply to enter at ports.

Figure 1 compares the annual number of “inadmissible aliens” along the southwest border—generally those without proper documents proving pre-approval to enter, many of whom want to request asylum—to the number of CBP-OFO permanently assigned officers. As it shows, the Obama administration in 2016 processed 82,106 more undocumented migrants than in 2012 and 2013—more than double the earlier amount—despite 97 fewer CBP-OFO officers. The Trump administration added officers every year—increases of 692, or 11 percent—yet it cut port processing.

But the annual figures significantly understate the reductions in port processing under this administration. In the month of October 2016, the Obama administration processed 20,524 undocumented migrants at ports. In October 2019, the Trump administration processed just 9,733, 53 percent less than the peak processing month, as Figure 2 shows. The average CBP-OFO officer at a port of entry went from processing 3.1 undocumented migrants per month to just 1.4 per month, a 56 percent cut.

Nor is it a matter of undocumented aliens appearing in one region that cannot handle them. Figure 3 breaks down the numbers by CBP-OFO field office. In all four regions, the numbers have fallen in absolute terms: 57 percent in San Diego, 38 percent in Tucson, 44 percent in El Paso, and 56 percent in Laredo. Only El Paso sector—with the fewest migrants—had fewer officers in 2019 than 2016 (a 2 percent staffing drop). Laredo oversaw the processing of 4,884 fewer undocumented migrants in October 2019 as October 2016, despite 235 more officers (10 percent increase). San Diego allowed in 3,537 fewer, despite 120 more officers (6 percent increase). Tucson processing fell 1,428, despite 143 more officers (18 percent increase).

Figure 4 depicts the number of undocumented migrants processed at ports per officer for each field office. Again, relative to the officers available, the Trump administration is processing far fewer migrants than the Obama administration in all four field offices. Compared to October 2016, the average CBP-OFO permanently assigned officer processed 59 percent fewer in San Diego, 47 percent fewer in Tucson, 43 percent fewer in El Paso, and 60 percent fewer in Laredo than in October 2019. The average officer in Laredo went from handling 3.6 cases in October 2016 to 1.4 in October 2019.

The per-agent figures also highlight metering’s absurd justification. The average CBP-OFO permanently assigned officer processed just 1.4 migrants in the entire month of October 2019. The resource excuse strains the credulity of the court and the public.

These numbers actually understate the issue because CBP also temporarily transferred an unknown number of officers to deal with “overflow” operations. While we don’t know the numbers of officers, CBP revealed that it transferred $6.7 million in funds to deal with “overflow” operations at southwest ports of entry in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, it transferred $11.3 and $8.4 million, respectively, and in 2019, the number rose to $28.1 million by July 22—a fourfold increase over 2016. In other words, there were far more temporary resources available in 2019 as well.

Ultimately, the purpose of metering is make immigrants so miserable that they give up and go home, but while it undoubtedly does make them suffer all sorts of atrocities, it also drives many of them to cross illegally. This makes illegal immigration worse and results in unnecessary, dangerous crossings. A man and his daughter who were turned away at a port of entry ended up drowning in the Rio Grande River in July.

This fact also further frustrates the “resources” excuse because this summer CBP found ways to process vastly greater quantities of undocumented migrants who crossed illegally between ports of entry. At the same time, it claimed a total inability to increase the numbers at ports of entry. DHS continues to evade responsibility for causing illegal immigration and its deadly consequences.

December 3, 2019 4:28PM

Most Central Americans Still Evade Mexican Migrant Crackdown

Mexico’s government has touted to President Trump its efforts to reduce migration of Central Americans through its territory to the United States and took credit for the drop in arrests of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border since June. Yet Mexican immigration enforcement fails to explain the drop in immigrants reaching the United States for three reasons: 1) most who try are still making it, 2) the effectiveness of Mexico’s enforcement is slightly worse than the median month since October 2014, and 3) the drop has occurred mainly among families and unaccompanied children, while Mexican enforcement has mainly targeted adults traveling alone.

Figure 1 shows the number of arrests of immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—by U.S. Border Patrol or Mexican authorities. The data reveal that Mexican enforcement is not only not unprecedented, but it is actually less effective than it was on numerous occasions in recent years. In September 2019, 61 percent of arrests occurred in the United States, indicating that most Central Americans evaded the crackdown. This is worse than the median month (59 percent) since October 2014, meaning Central Americans were less likely to reach the U.S. border in a majority of other months.

Figure 2 compares the likelihood of reaching the United States by the type of migrant. As it shows, the crackdown was more effective at stopping single adults than children with parents or unaccompanied children. More than 70 percent of unaccompanied children and children with parents made it to the United States in September 2019, compared to just 46 percent of single adults. Despite this focus on single adults, it was families and children whose numbers declined the most, falling 85 percent since May. Single adults have come down comparatively less: 64 percent. Many other months saw stricter enforcement.

Given these facts, it is more likely that other factors explain the absolute decline in arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol. The most important would be the inability of Central Americans to make asylum claims in the United States and the return of Central Americans into Mexican border cities under the “Remain in Mexico” policies. These actions—which have exposed numerous immigrants to crime, homelessness, and death—have likely deterred others from trying to seek safety in the United States.

Children and families are more likely to fear extended homelessness in Mexico, which explains why they were disproportionately affected by these policies. Single adults are also more likely to attempt to evade detection, so they are less influenced by changes in asylum policy. The United States has better alternatives to deal with this crisis than abandoning its asylum laws and treating asylum seekers like criminals. It should increase legal immigration and process asylum seekers at ports of entry.

November 25, 2019 3:21PM

Criminal Apprehensions Fell Precipitously Along the Border in 2019

Customs and Border Protection apprehended 1,148,024 people during Fiscal Year 2019. Border Patrol apprehended 75 percent of them while CBP officers apprehended the remaining quarter. The number of people CBP apprehended was up 68 percent over 2018, but the number of criminals arrested in 2019 was only up about 15 percent over the previous year. As a result, criminal apprehensions in 2019 comprised the smallest share of all apprehensions since 2015, when publicly available data were first published online (Figure 1). We only have data for the first month of the 2020 fiscal year, so those numbers are included even though this post will not draw conclusions about 2020 from a single month of data.

Figure 1

CBP Apprehensions by Criminal Status, 2015-2020


Source: CBP

Note: 2020 data is for the first month of that fiscal year.

The number of people apprehended by Border Patrol was up 112 percent from 2018 to 2019, from 404,142 to 859,501. Although the number of Border Patrol apprehensions more than doubled, the number of criminals apprehended rose by just 2.1 percent. Border Patrol separately recorded the number of convictions of those it apprehended in each year by crime (Table 1). The number of convictions is different from the number of criminals, as one criminal could have multiple convictions. In 2019, the number of criminal convictions spread among those apprehended criminals dropped by 31 percent. The number of criminal convictions among those criminals apprehended is lower for every crime except for Illegal Weapons Possession, Transport, Trafficking. This occurred while the number of apprehensions doubled.

Table 1

Border Patrol Criminal Alien Statistics, 2015-2019








Assault, Battery, Domestic Violence







Burglary, Robbery, Larceny, Theft, Fraud







Driving Under the Influence







Homicide, Manslaughter







Illegal Drug Possession, Trafficking







Illegal Entry, Re-Entry







Illegal Weapons Possession, Transport, Trafficking







Sexual Offenses














All Convictions







All Border Patrol Apprehensions







Source: CBP.

There were only two convictions for homicide and manslaughter among the 859,501 Border Patrol apprehended in 2019. That is the stock of convictions for homicide and manslaughter. Even if it was the number of new convictions in 2019, it would be shockingly low.

Perhaps Border Patrol agents apprehended fewer criminals in 2019 because they were diverted to processing asylum claims, leaving fewer agents available to patrol the border which allowed more criminal aliens to evade detection. Thus, the observed falling numbers of criminal aliens apprehended could arise from a lack of detection rather than fewer criminals trying to enter. The number of single adults apprehended in recent years is evidence against that theory. They are the most likely to be criminals. However, the number of single adults apprehended by Border Patrol has risen over the years and the number apprehended by CBP Officers at ports of entry has only dropped slightly. This isn’t a slam dunk response but merely evidence against the theory that Border Patrol is distracted by asylum seekers while criminals are entering undetected.

November 15, 2019 2:46PM

New Policy Banning H‑2A Sheepherders Shows Need for Congress to Act

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced it would end a decades-old practice of allowing sheep and goat herders to enter the United States as guest workers under the H-2A program. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a policy memo that overturn its historical practice of allowing sheepherders to receive three consecutive, back-to-back grants of H-2A status for 364-days (or similarly lengthy periods).

Congress should protect the herding industry. The bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which I have previously reviewed here and is currently moving in the House, would address this issue in multiple ways, but other options exist to stop this assault on an important legal immigration program from occurring.

The H-2A statute requires that H-2A status be granted only to those workers performing services of a “temporary or seasonal” nature. The H-2A approval process starts with the Department of Labor (DOL), which assesses whether a job meets this requirement and whether U.S. workers are available to fill the job. If DOL approves the application, only then do employers petition USCIS to admit the workers. During this second application, USCIS again reviews whether the job is “temporary or seasonal.”

The policies of every administration at least since Eisenhower has been to treat the sheep herding industry under unique procedures that allow them to hire workers for 364 days—consistent with the requirement that it be “temporary”—but then to extend their status three times back-to-back.

In response to a D.C. Circuit decision last year allowing a lawsuit challenging these special procedures to proceed, USCIS announced that it would now require that sheep and goat herders be subject to the same evidentiary requirements as all other H-2A employers, demonstrating their needs are truly temporary or seasonal—even if DOL already determined that it was. The rule will take effect in June 2020.

This decision is devastating for sheep and goat herders—both workers and employers—who have operated under these procedures for their entire lives. USCIS admits that its action to stop fighting the lawsuit and make this change “may have an impact on the long-standing business practices” of goat and sheep herders. It could be worse than that. The industry warned the agency in 2015 that making H-2A workers much more difficult to hire would “jeopardize the entire herding industry," causing "many employers to either go out of business entirely or to downsize and greatly reduce the number of workers employed."

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would solve this problem in two ways. First, it would create a single, unified application process so that DHS wouldn’t review determinations that DOL already made. DHS couldn't override DOL's determination that a job was seasonal or temporary (though, in this case, DOL has also announced plans to change its regulations for sheep and goat herders). Second, the bill would create a new H-2A program for year-round workers, effectively authorizing the existing practice for sheep and goat herders but for other industries as well.

Even if Congress can’t agree to pass the entire bill, it could rely on the appropriations process instead to preserve the status quo for herders. Hopefully, senators in the states affected—mainly California, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming—will take notice and push appropriators to consider how they can deal with the issue before the implementation date next year.

November 15, 2019 1:21PM

Illegal Immigrants in Europe

Pew Research Center recently released a wonderful new report that estimates the illegal immigrant resident population in European Union and European Free Trade Association (EU-EFTA) countries. This is the first systematic report to estimate Europe’s illegal immigrant population along the lines that Pew and others use to estimate the U.S. illegal immigrant population. Illegal immigrants are a much larger population in the United States than in Europe.

Pew estimates that there are 3.9 million to 4.8 million illegal immigrants in EU-EFTA as of 2017. Those illegal immigrants come from countries outside of the EU-EFTA area. About 1 million illegal immigrants in EU-EFTA have pending asylum claims, so many will eventually earn legal status. As a percentage of the 525 million people living in the EU-EFTA, only about 0.74 to 0.91 percent are illegal immigrants. Of the roughly 20 million non-EU-EFTA residents who are non-citizens in any of those countries, only 19 to 24.5 percent are illegal immigrants.

Compared to the United States, illegal immigration is a minor concern in Europe. According to Pew, there are roughly 10.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States as of 2017. Other groups come to similar numbers despite some controversy regarding estimation methods. Illegal immigrants were roughly 3.2 percent of the approximately 326 million people living in the United States in 2017. Of the 22.6 million non-citizens currently living in the United States, about 47 percent are illegal immigrants. No matter how you look at it, EU-EFTA countries have a smaller illegal immigrant population than the United States.

There are many reasons why many fewer illegal immigrants live in the EU-EFTA than the United States. The first is geography. It’s more difficult for illegal immigrants to travel from poor countries to Europe illegally. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea is expensive, difficult, and deadly. Historically, crossing the border from Mexico into the United States was easier. That is why about 23 percent of the illegal immigrants in Europe are from other European countries outside of the EU-EFTA like Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Kosovo. The cost for them to travel to Europe is a lot lower than the cost for an Afghan, Iraqi, or Nigerian.

Another reason is that the EU allows workers from poorer countries to work in wealthier EU countries legally. A larger supply of legal immigrant workers crowds out illegal immigrant workers. For instance, Luxembourg was the wealthiest EU country in 2017 with a per capita GDP, PPP of $107,641 in current international dollars. Workers from Bulgaria, which is the poorest EU country, have a crudely-estimates place premium of 5.1 if working in Luxembourg. That’s much higher than the 3.1 place premium multiple (same crude estimation method) for Mexicans working in the United States. If the United States had a free movement agreement with a few countries as poor as Mexico then the illegal immigrant population here would also be a lot smaller too.

The third major reason Europe has fewer illegal immigrants than the United States is that they have had more amnesties in recent years. From 1996 to 2011, more than 5 million illegal immigrants were legalized in Europe. The last major U.S. amnesty was in 1986 for illegal immigrants who arrived before 1982 (DACA is merely a temporary reprieve with work authorization). By decreasing the stock of illegal immigrants substantially in recent years, EU-EFTA countries have kept the number of illegal immigrants low.

Some European countries have a revolving amnesty program that isn’t tied to the illegal immigrant's date of entry. For instance, the United Kingdom has a revolving amnesty policy that grants “limited leave to remain” (i.e., temporary residence) to illegal immigrants under certain conditions that can lead to “indefinite leave to remain” (i.e., permanent residence). The United Kingdom grants limited leave to remain to any adult non-UK citizen who would have “very significant obstacles” to “integration into the country to which he would have to go,” children who have lived continuously for at least seven years in the United Kingdom and for whom it would not be “reasonable” to expect them to leave, non-UK citizens ages 18–25 if they have lived continuously for at least half their life in the country, and any non-UK citizen who has lived continuously for at least 20 years in the country. Limited leave to remain provides for two and a half years of temporary residence without access to public benefits, but immigrants may renew it. Following 10 years with limited leave to remain, legalized immigrants may apply for indefinite leave remain.

Another reason why there are fewer illegal immigrants in Europe is that the generally more intrusive labor market regulations and identity systems in EU_EFTA countries make it more difficult to work, rent a dwelling, open a bank account, or otherwise live in Europe as an illegal immigrant than the comparatively less-regulated United States. A Danish libertarian told me that the Personal Identity Number issued to legal immigrants and Danish citizens is essential to get a job, receive payment, rent an apartment, and open a bank account. There’s likely a black market for Personal Identity Numbers, some fraud on the margins, and other ways to circumvent the system, but only at a cost. Meanwhile, American attempts to create similar systems fail miserably.

Costly labor market regulations that discourage the hiring of low-skilled workers means that employers of illegal immigrants in Europe would have to break both labor market laws and immigration laws. In the United States, by comparison, employers only break the comparatively less-well enforced immigration laws to employ illegal immigrants. This is why many American intellectuals who want harsher immigration enforcement push for a higher minimum wage – it will price out some illegal immigrants and conscript labor bureaucrats into immigration enforcement. The comparatively less-regulated United Kingdom, Germany (after the Hartz Reforms), and Italy’s large labor black market help explain why most illegal immigrants are in those countries.

The United States has one big lesson to learn from Europe’s experience with illegal immigration: A free movement zone with comparatively poorer countries can reduce illegal immigration. An increased supply of legal immigrant workers can crowd out illegal immigrant workers.

November 6, 2019 4:09PM

Immigration and Homicide Rates in New York City: 1850 – 2017

Research from 1994 to 2014 has generally found that there is a negative relationship between immigration and crime in the United States. According to those and other findings, all immigrants have a lower criminal incarceration rate and there are lower crime rates in the neighborhoods where they live. Even recent research on illegal immigration and crime has found a negative relationship.

All of those studies research the relationship between crime and immigration in recent years and decades – which is most relevant for setting public policy today. However, I recently came across historical homicide data for New York City going back to the 18th century. Although research from over a century ago generally found a negative relationship between crime and immigration too, historical homicide data present a fun opportunity to see the relationship over time.

Figure 1 shows a strong negative relationship between homicide rates per 100,000 New Yorkers and the percent of the population that is foreign-born. A simple linear regression between the two variables shows a negative coefficient of -0.32 that is significant at the 1 percent level. This is just a correlation and does not imply causation.

Figure 1 starts in 1850 because that’s when the U.S. Census began to count the nativity of the population. The total population of New York City and its immigrant share come from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey. Values are interpolated for missing years. Homicide data come from the historical ICPSR database and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics for more recent years. I did not include any controls.

Even the most naïve regression between homicide rates and the foreign-born share of the population in New York City, the largest immigrant hub throughout U.S. history, shows a negative correlation over time.

November 5, 2019 4:33PM

H‑2A Farmers Will Benefit From House Reform Bill

A bipartisan group of House members introduced the Farm Worker Modernization Act. The legislation will expand eligibility for the H-2A program to year-round industries, but it also contains several welcomed reforms that will bring down the costs of using the H-2A program, as I’ve detailed in my general review here. One set of reforms that will benefit current H-2A users in particular will change the government-established H-2A wage called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) that employers must pay to all H-2A workers and U.S. workers in "corresponding employment."

The Department of Labor (DOL) calculates the AEWR using the Farm Labor Survey, a quarterly survey of farms conducted by the Department of Agriculture. It has several problems, including that the AEWR, unlike most immigration programs, relies on statewide estimates rather than local estimates and creates a single wage floor without regard to skill level. Ultimately, farmers are most frustrated by escalating labor expenses forced on them by the AEWR and high volatility in the AEWR estimates.

Figure 1 shows how much faster the AEWR has increased relative to price inflation. 2019 saw a particularly sharp increase, and based on a half year of surveys, 2020 is predicted to have an even larger increase. Overall, the AEWR is increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation.

To address this problem, the Farm Worker Modernization Act (p. 58) freezes the AEWR for 2020 and bans increases in the AEWR greater than 3.25 percent in a single year (or decreases greater than 1.5 percent), limiting volatility and reducing labor expenses of H-2A employers trying to follow immigration law. For context, 2019 saw a 6.2 percent increase over the AEWR in 2018, and 2020 is expected—based on a half year of data—to see 7-8 percent increase.

To see how important this would be to farmers, consider that from 1991 to 2019, the AEWR has increased by more than 3.25 percent for an average of 27 states annually, and it has decreased by more than 1.5 percent in for average of just 2 states annually. Figure 2 shows the number of states meeting these criteria by year. In 2019, 37 states had increases greater than 3.25 percent, while none had decreases larger than 1.5 percent.

The legislation would prevent the type of wild changes in the AEWR that frustrate farmers’ ability to plan. The AEWR’s wage estimates for farms are 20 percent more volatile than, for example, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, based on the annual change in a state’s AEWR relative to the state’s average change for all years. Moreover, under current law, AEWR changes—no matter how big—become effective immediately, even in the middle of an H-2A contract—while the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would apply increases only to a new contract.

Figure 3 illustrates how much the AEWR can fluctuate up or down. The average difference between the highest and lowest change was 11 percent from 1990 to 2019. In 2019, it was 23 percent. The legislation would limit such increases to no more than 3.25 percent. 

Beyond the benefits for farmers wanting to be able to plan, the legislation would also reduce labor expenses. Figure 4 imagines how the AEWR would have developed differently from 1990 to 2020, if the Farm Workforce Modernization Act’s rules were enacted in 1990. In 2019, the national average for all states would have been 11 percent lower. This would have saved H-2A farmers in 2019 about $324 million in labor expenses for H-2A workers alone. It would probably save them multiples of that amount for U.S. workers who must receive the same wage. In 2020, the AEWR would have likely been 15 percent lower, meaning even greater savings next year.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act also disaggregates wage estimates based on the specific farmworker occupation. Currently, the AEWR relies on the combined field and livestock worker estimates, which inflates the wages for most H-2A workers by lumping in higher skilled equipment operators. This change would raise the AEWR for more skilled positions and lower it for the general farm laborers. Overall, this would produce possibly more reliable estimates, but in combination with the capped increases, this would likely not make a significant change in labor expenses.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act improves the wage structure for H-2A farmers by reducing wage volatility and reducing labor expenses. Obviously, the legislation fails to stop all increases in the AEWR, but it is a manifest improvement over the status quo.