Sunday, July 08, 2018

Southwest Border Data Shows ‘Zero Tolerance’ Didn’t Deter Migrants After All

WOLA Analysis
July 6, 2018

Southwest Border Data Shows ‘Zero Tolerance’ Didn’t Deter Migrants After All

By: WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson
In May and June, while shocking the world with their “zero tolerance” policy of arresting all border crossers and separating asylum-seeking parents and children, Trump administration officials contended that their cruelty had a purpose: to deter and dissuade future migrants from even attempting the trip.

If that theory were true, then Border Patrol would have apprehended far fewer migrants in June 2018. With the "zero tolerance" policy going firmly into effect around May 5, and media reports of family separations accumulating by the end of May, would fewer people try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in June?

On July 5, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) gave us its answer, releasingits June data. It turns out that U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 15.4 percent fewer migrants at the border, between the official ports of entry, in June compared to May. A statement from the Homeland Security Department credits “the implementation of the Administration’s zero-tolerance policy.”

Not so fast. Border Patrol almost always measures fewer migrant apprehensions in June compared to May. A seasonal drop is normal: it's scorchingly, dangerously hot in the arid deserts along the southwest border, and fewer migrants attempt the journey.

Between 2000 and 2017, the average monthly drop from Mays to Junes at the U.S.-Mexico border was 21.3 percent fewer migrant apprehensions. That's 5.9 percentage points steeper than June 2018's 15.4 percent decrease. The May to June 2018 drop in migration was smaller than the average of the previous 18 years, showing no deterrent effect at all.

Between 2011 and 2017, a period of sharply reduced cross-border migration, the average May-June drop was much lower: 11.3 percent. The May to June 2018 drop in migration, then, was 4.1 percentage points larger than the average of the previous 7 years, showing only a very modest potential deterrent effect.

Had 2018 matched the 2011-2017 average, Border Patrol would have apprehended 35,785 migrants at the border. Instead, it apprehended 34,114. The difference is 1,671, or 4.6 percent, fewer. So perhaps that's about how many migrants may have been “deterred.” Not much.

What about unaccompanied children and families, most of whom are asylum-seekers, and who make up most of those hit hardest by the “zero tolerance” policy? We only have monthly data for child and family apprehensions since 2013.

In the five years from 2013 to 2017, though, the number of apprehended children and family-unit members actually increased by an average of 8.3 percent from Mays to Junes. In June 2018, though, children and families decreased by 8.2 percent. That decrease is virtually identical to that measured between May and June 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.Again, we see only a modest potential deterrent effect.

Had 2018 matched the 2013-2017 average increase, Border Patrol would have apprehended 17,191 children and family members in June 2018. Instead, it apprehended 14,564. The difference is 2,627 people, or 15 percent, fewer. So perhaps that is about how many children and family members were “deterred.” Again, not much.

For all of the pain and outrage it has caused, during a month when it was at its most intense and generating worldwide headlines, the “zero tolerance” policy had only a very small deterrent effect on would-be migrants.

Instead of this cruel approach, it’s beyond time to focus on the violence, corruption, and misrule pushing tens of thousands of Central Americans out of their home countries. And it’s time to revisit alternatives to detention: programs that allow families to await their asylum decisions outside of detention, using location monitoring or caseworker support to ensure near-total compliance at a fraction of the cost. This would work far better than attempting deterrence through imposed misery.

Data for All Migrants


Data for Unaccompanied Children and Family Unit Members


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Francis Torres
WOLA Communications Assistant
+1 (202) 797-2171

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