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Leaked Border Report Shows Need for Better Metrics

By Theresa Cardinal Brown

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lost among the headlines of the presidential debate this weekend was a story by the Associated Press on a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that attempted to measure the actual number of unauthorized migrants who avoided detection at the U.S.-Mexico Border. The headline of the AP story (“Barely Half of Illegal Border-Crossers Caught”) belies the substance of the article, which actually notes that overall, the number of “got-aways” at the border has declined 90 percent in the last decade.

The story’s headline belies the substance of the article, which actually notes that the number of “got-aways” at the border has declined 90 percent in the last decade.

While it is true that, according to the article, the DHS report found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials caught only 54 percent of those who attempted to cross in 2015, this represents a significant improvement over 2005, when the report estimated that only 36 percent of crossers were apprehended. In absolute numbers, those who escaped apprehension declined from 1.7 million in 2005 to approximately 170,000 in 2015 by the report’s estimates. In addition, AP published a follow-up story noting that the number of individuals presenting themselves at the border to claim asylum has increased to over 150,000 in the last two years, driven mostly by the arrival of Central American migrants, as covered in our previous posts. However, the DHS report does not count these asylum seekers as unauthorized immigrants since, for the most part, they did not attempt to evade detection, but sought out authorities to make their asylum claims.

Of course, advocates on both sides of the immigration divide immediately took up their case in light of this story. Those who favor increased border enforcement howled that over 100,000 people may have made it across the border last year (of course, this doesn’t include those who entered on visas and overstayed), while those advocating for immigration reform cited the overall declines in the number attempting entry. These divergent spins on the data are to be expected, as this is the first somewhat objective reporting on the border that has come out in public.

DHS should be more transparent in its efforts at measuring how it is doing at immigration enforcement, both to inform the public debate, as well as to depoliticize the issue.

As detailed in BPC’s report last year, Measuring the Metrics: Grading the Government on Immigration Enforcement, the government has not published consistent, objective metrics of the impact of border enforcement. In fact, both parties have criticized administrations of the other party for “politicizing” the reporting of metrics, and holding back data that makes their own enforcement efforts seem inadequate. However, it is important for public policy that these data be made public so that debates on what more can or should be done at the border can be based on a realistic understanding of the effect of past efforts. DHS should make this report public, as well as be more transparent in its efforts at measuring how it is doing at immigration enforcement, both to inform the public debate, as well as to depoliticize the issue. Only by doing so can we have a more realistic conversation about what works in terms of border enforcement and what we can expect from our border agencies, and move beyond the debate over metrics to the substance of immigration reform.


Disclosure: The author of BPC’s border metrics report, Bryan Roberts, has been affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analysis and worked on the DHS report referenced in the AP story.

KEYWORDS: ASSOCIATED PRESS, CENTRAL AMERICAN MIGRANTS, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION