Something remarkable happened in the White House this week, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met with President Trump to talk about border security amid their standoff over the federal budget.
Yes, it was a spectacle, but more interesting for our purposes was President Trump’s attempt to ground the debate in numbers, making a case for a border wall by citing a reduction in “illegal traffic” in locations where he said the approach has been effective in blocking unauthorized immigration.
“A lot of the wall is built. It’s been very effective,” he said. “I asked for a couple of notes on that. If you look at San Diego, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent once the wall was up. El Paso, illegal traffic dropped 72 percent, then ultimately 95 percent once the wall was up. In Tucson, Arizona, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent. Yuma, it dropped illegal traffic 95 to 96 percent.”
Those numbers were only part of the story. On this bonus episode of the Numbers Geek podcast, from GeekWire and USAFacts, we explore the numbers behind border apprehensions and border patrol agents to illustrate the long-term trends in the numbers, and ground the debate in a common understanding of the numbers.
President Trump didn’t give a time-frame for the declines, but a White House official told KGUN-TV in Tucson that he was referencing the long-term effect of walls and fences built on the border in those areas dating back to the 1990s and 2000s.
When the president cites “illegal traffic,” he is believed to be referring to apprehensions of people attempting to cross the border illegally. It might seem counterintuitive, but a decrease in border apprehensions tends to be viewed as a sign of stronger border security, because apprehensions are a “indicator of overall unauthorized border crossings,” as NPR reported this week.
A video produced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2017 details the tactics and trends in some of the key areas the president cited.
USAFacts, the nonpartisan nonprofit civic data initiative founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, collects and reports U.S. border numbers from the government going back decades, across both Republican and Democratic administrations.
If we look at the big-picture data, two notable trends emerge.
First, the number of border apprehensions has declined by more than 80 percent over the past 17 years.
- In 2000, the government reported nearly 1.7 million border apprehensions.
- In 2015, toward the end of the Obama administration, border apprehensions had already dropped to 337,000.
- In 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, the number declined to 311,000 border apprehensions.
Second, over the same time period, the number of border patrol agents has more than doubled.
- In 2000, the number of border agents was 9,200 in 2000.
- By 2011-2013 the number reached a peak of more than 21,000 agents.
- The number declined to 19,000 as of last year, down 2,000 agents from the peak but still more than double the number of agents from 17 years ago.
The numbers can fluctuate month-to-month, by location and by type of immigrant, but these two long-term trends predate the current administration by many years.
Ballmer says it’s important to understand these numbers to be an informed participant in the current debate over immigration and border security.
In addition, a USAFacts immigration timeline shows how Republican and Democratic administrations have been on either side of this issue, depending on the circumstances and the era.
“In a way, I might offer that as a form of hope. It means people do evolve their views,” Ballmer says. “They think things through in different ways. … Hopefully if people can just stop and take a look at the factual history and the real numbers, we can get a little bit more constructive debate.”