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Performance Measures Suggest that Border Strategy May Be Working

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of debate over the Obama Administration’s deportation numbers. As stakeholders on all sides of the debate put forward their take on the data, two key facts have been overlooked. First, the increase in formal border removals is part of a deliberate strategy to deter unauthorized immigrants at the border. Second, by at least one of the few sets of performance data available, the strategy appears to be working. That border removals reflect an enforcement strategy, and the potential that this strategy is achieving its goals, are essential considerations for an informed debate. Better data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would help observers assess the strategy more conclusively.

High-consequence border enforcement. In 2004, DHS issued a policy change allowing it to apply “expedited removals” to foreigners apprehended between legal ports of entry.1 Created in 1996, the expedited removal process allows DHS to remove foreigners who lack proper documentation or attempt to fraudulently enter the United States without a hearing before an immigration judge.2 Following this policy change, in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began limiting its use of voluntary returns for individuals apprehended at the border in favor of greater consequences, such as formal removal proceedings.3 Since 2005, the share of immigrants apprehended at the southwest border that face a consequence other than voluntary return has increased dramatically. Today, the border removals strategy is part of the Consequence Delivery System (CDS), which DHS initiated in FY 2010 and fully implemented across the U.S.-Mexico border in FY 2012. Unlike the previous high-consequence enforcement strategy, CDS applies consequences “through advanced analysis of consequence programs and alien classification to yield the greatest impact.”4

Reflecting this high-consequence border enforcement strategy, ICE reports that the number of border removals increased 75 percent between FY 2008 and FY 2013. Border removal statistics are not available before FY 2008, but given available information about DHS’ enforcement strategy, one can reasonably assume that the trend began in FY 2005.

Figure 1. ICE Border and Interior Removals, FY 2008-FY 20135

ICE Border and Interior Removals, FY 2008-FY 2013

Measuring effectiveness through recidivism. DHS uses recidivism rates to measure the success of its high-consequence enforcement strategy. Because Border Patrol collects fingerprints from unauthorized immigrants apprehended at the border, it can calculate the share of individuals who are apprehended multiple times in a single year. In short, the recidivism rate is a proxy for whether people who are caught at the border try again. Recidivism rates can be used to judge whether high-consequence enforcement, including the increase in border removals, is successfully deterring unauthorized immigrants. On the southwest border, recidivism rates held fairly constant in the early years of high-consequence enforcement, but plummeted sharply in the four years following CDS implementation (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Recidivism rates at the U.S.-Mexico border, FY 2005-FY20136

Recidivism rates at the U.S.-Mexico border, FY 2005-FY2013

The decline in recidivism could suggest that high-consequence enforcement is working, but two other explanations must be considered. First, the decline corresponds to the decline in border apprehensions overall, which is attributable at least in part to the weaker economy. Second, an increasing portion of the individuals apprehended at the border are not Mexican (other than Mexican, or OTM). In its FY 2013 performance accountability report, CBP notes that this population has “a lower opportunity and capability to attempt multiple illegal entries.”7 It is also worth noting that only Mexicans, not OTMs, are subject to immediate voluntary return when apprehended between the ports of entry. The recent increase in OTM apprehensions appears to explain part of the recent increase in border removals (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Border removals versus non-Mexican apprehensions, FY 2008-FY 2013

Border removals versus non-Mexican apprehensions, FY 2008-FY 2013
Source: CBP (apprehensions)8, Figure 1 (border removals).

Breaking recidivism rates down by consequence controls for the economic explanation. The more severe the consequence, the less likely an individual is to be caught attempting to cross the border in the near future. In FY 2011 and FY 2012, the two largest categories of migrants who were criminally charged had recidivism rates of 9 and 11 percent, and migrants subject to administrative removals (expedited or reinstatement) had recidivism rates of 16 percent (Figure 4). By contrast, voluntary returns had a 29 percent recidivism rate. This could suggest that removals deter unauthorized immigration more effectively than voluntary returns.

It is important to note three qualifiers. First, at the southwest border, the voluntary return population should be almost exclusively Mexican nationals, while the formal removal population includes many OTMs. OTMs generally live further from the U.S.-Mexico border and may be less able to attempt a second crossing.9 Second, because recidivism rates are limited to apprehensions within the same year, individuals going through lengthier processing have fewer opportunities to attempt entry again during that year. This should not have a significant effect on relatively quick administrative removal proceedings (expedited or reinstatements), but it likely reduces recidivism for criminally charged individuals. Third, one-year recidivism rates can only measure short-term deterrence.

Figure 4. Southwest border recidivism rate by consequence type, FY2011-FY201210

Southwest border recidivism rate by consequence type, FY2011-FY2012
Note: Categories not mutually exclusive.

Conclusion. Based on at least this measure of recidivism rates, it appears that border removals and high-consequence enforcement are achieving their goals of deterring unauthorized immigration. Just as importantly, however, the available numbers illustrate the need for clearer and more effective measurements of immigration enforcement strategies. Raw trends suggest that high consequence enforcement deters unauthorized immigration, but these trends must be interpreted through layers of caveats that are difficult to quantify. Measures like multi-year recidivism rates or recidivism by consequence and nationality would allow policymakers and the public to assess the effects of high-consequence enforcement with greater certainty—including the effectiveness of the Obama Administration’s increased use of border removals.

1 CBP (2004), “Designating Aliens for Expedited Removal,” Federal Register 69.154, available at

2 DHS (n.d.), “Definition of Terms,” accessed April 17, 2014, available at

3 Marc Rosenblaum (2013), “Border Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry,” Congressional Research Service, available at

4 Michael J. Fisher (2011), “Does Administrative Amnesty Harm our Efforts to Gain and Maintain Operational Control of the Border,” Testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, October 4, 2011, available at DHS (2015), “U.S. Customs and Border Protection Salaries and Expenses,” in Congressional Budget Justification FY 2015, available at

5 Compiled from ICE. See Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2012). “ICE Total Removals Through February 20th, 2012.” Available at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2013). “FY2012 Removal Statistics.” No longer available online. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2014). “FY2013 Removal Statistics.” Available at

6 DHS Congressional Budget Justification FY 2015, op.cit.

7 CBP (2014), “Performance and Accountability Report: Fiscal Year 2013,” available at

8 CBP (2014), “United States Border Patrol: Illegal Alien Apprehensions From Mexico By Fiscal Year,” available at

9 The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics contains information on removals and returns by nationality, but does not break down those statistics by location (e.g., northern border, southern border, airports and seaports).

10 Calculated from Rosenblaum (2013), op.cit. 

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