President Trump’s top policy priority was supposedly “border security.” But government data show that he failed to improve it. Border Patrol recorded 41 percent more successful illegal entries in fiscal year 2019 than in 2016 and was on pace for 47 percent more through four months of 2020. As he left office in January, reports indicate that the numbers have reached even greater heights.
Government officials and the media typically measure border security by the number of people “apprehended” (or arrested) by Border Patrol. But the main security concern for the agency are those it cannot interdict—who it calls “got‐aways”. Border Patrol released a horrifying video last year that fantasized about a “got‐away” evading capture and murdering someone in a dark alley.
Yet despite this supposed focus, the government records show that Border Patrol was observing more immigrants sneaking into the country than when President Trump took office. In fiscal year 2016, Border Patrol agents witnessed about 100,000 successful entries. By 2018, the number had risen to nearly 128,000. In 2019, it hit 150,000. Through four months of 2020, it was on pace to hit almost 156,000.
It appears to have worsened since then. In early 2020, officials told the Washington Post that got‐aways had “soared,” reaching over 1,000 on one day. Nor can the Trump team claim that the increased crossings were only the result of more people crossing overall. In January 2020, 29 percent of 41,000 detected crossers evaded capture. In December 2016, 17 percent of 52,400 made it in.
When Border Patrol first created the “got‐away” measure in 2005, it had no uniform standards for reporting them, surveillance along the border was poor, and agents made largely arbitrary assessments of when to count them. But during the Obama years, surveillance improved greatly allowing them to have greater confidence in the records, and in 2014, the Obama administration standardized record keeping and reporting for all Border Patrol areas.
Today, the government now uses more sophisticated independent analysis on unlawful entries to check how reliable the surveillance data are. From data collected in other countries, the agency has a decent idea how likely someone is to recross after being deported. If fewer recrossers are arrested than the data predict, it’s likely they succeeded at making in. As surveillance and reporting improved, the observed gotaways and the predicted successful illegal entries began to closely align (though gotaways are still below predicted entries).
The Trump border policy had a single‐minded focus: keep out asylum seekers. Yet the ability to apply for asylum meant that fewer people tried to sneak in. One border crosser in 2018 told the Wall Street Journal that he had turned himself into the first Border Patrol agent he saw and was seeking “the immigration office.” Rather than direct these crossers to legal crossing points, the Trump administration blocked applicants from applying at ports of entry.
After first separating families and then attempting ban asylum, Trump started returning asylum seekers to Mexico to await hearings in homeless camps on the other side of the border line. This led to a wave of crimes against immigrants. Some were kidnapped, other raped, and some murdered. When the pandemic hit, the government suspended all hearings for those already returned to Mexico and began expelling all others with no hearing all.
It was inevitable that as the opportunity to obtain asylum disappeared or the costs to do so increased (such as through family separation). A greater percentage of people would attempt to sneak around ports of entry.
Unfortunately, President Biden has maintained nearly all of Trump’s border policies. While admitting a slow trickle of asylum seekers Trump returned to Mexico, and not expelling unaccompanied children back to Mexico (which a court order had already forced the Trump administration to do), he has continued to expel or deport asylum seekers back into Mexico or other countries without any process whatsoever. It’s still impossible to apply for asylum at legal crossing points.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has told crossers to “wait in Mexico” or get expelled back to Mexico. But this strategy has failed. DHS statistics show that in January, 38 percent of those apprehended had already been caught once that month, up from 7 percent in 2019, indicating that after people get expelled, they don’t wait. They just keep trying to get in.
If Trump’s policies aren’t improving security—in the only sense that matters—there’s really no reason for Biden to maintain them. He should stop expulsions and restore order to the border.