Fact-checking the DHS border presentation

The Trump administration is continuing to raise alarm about the situation along the southern US border, as i...

Posted: Jan 7, 2019 2:14 PM
Updated: Jan 7, 2019 2:14 PM

The Trump administration is continuing to raise alarm about the situation along the southern US border, as it urges Congress to provide funds to build additional barriers in the region.

On Friday, the White House shared with Congress the border security presentation that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen attempted to give at a meeting with top lawmakers in the Situation Room earlier in the week. Shortly after beginning the presentation, Nielsen, who was videoed in, was interrupted by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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The administration has released similar data points in the past, though it's unclear at times where the information has been pulled from. During a news conference Friday in the Rose Garden, President Donald Trump, flanked by Nielsen, among others, cited some of these figures as reasons for a border wall, which he's argued would stem the flow of migrants to the border.

Below is a breakdown of the presentation as provided to Congress, coupled with additional agency data contextualizing the points.

Drugs

"A dramatic spike in illegal drugs at the southern border makes clear the need for an effective physical barrier."

The majority of hard narcotics seized by Customs and Border Protection come through ports of entry either in packages, cargo or with people who attempt to enter the US legally. The only drug that is smuggled in higher numbers between legal entry points is marijuana, according to information from Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

For example, the majority of the heroin flow on the southern border into the US is through privately owned vehicles at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods, according to the DEA's 2018 annual drug threat assessment.

The DHS presentation says there was a 38% increase in methamphetamine at the southern border from 2017 to 2018.

There was an increase in both methamphetamine and fentanyl seizures at both ports of entry and between the legal entry points over the past year, but the percentage is unclear since data for the last month of fiscal year 2018 is unavailable.

A closer look at the numbers shows that in fiscal year 2018, Customs and Border Protection seized 67,292 pounds of methamphetamine at legal ports of entry, compared with 10,382 pounds by Border Patrol agents in between ports, based on available data.

Dangerous people

"DHS agencies are fighting an influx of dangerous people and need the resources to do so."

"17,000 adults at the southern border with existing criminal records arrested by CBP and border agents (FY18)"

Customs and Border Protection data counts nearly 17,000 criminal aliens "encountered" by the Office of Field Operations and the Border Patrol in fiscal year 2018. But it should be noted that large portions of the immigrants being arrested at the Southwest border committed nonviolent crimes, like illegal entry or re-entry -- the act of crossing into the US illegally -- and driving under the influence of alcohol. Customs and Border Protection statistics measure immigrants convicted of crimes in the US or abroad.

"3,755 known or suspected terrorists prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S. by DHS (FY17)"

This number is highly misleading and fits a pattern of statements by the administration that have sought to tie immigration on the US-Mexico border to Islamic terror. The figure, as the Department of Homeland Security writes, represents individuals blocked from "traveling to or entering the U.S." -- not necessarily along the Southwest border. It is not uncommon for an individual named on a federal watchlist to be denied access to a flight at a foreign airport or from obtaining a visa when they apply for entry at an embassy abroad.

"6,000 gang members, including MS-13, apprehended at the southern border and removed by ICE"

The way this number is presented appears to be misleading. The latest Customs and Border Protection statistics for fiscal year 2018 (which do not include the month of September) show that the Border Patrol apprehended 808 people affiliated with gangs at the border and across the nation. On the other hand, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed or deported 5,872 gang members in fiscal year 2018, per its latest numbers. These arrests and removals take place in communities over the country. The way this category is worded could leave readers under the impression that 6,000 gang members were arrested solely at the Southwest border, and it again plays to fears stoked by the administration of dangerous individuals coming into the US through Mexico.

"Each year criminal organizations gain $2.5 billion in profit from migrant smuggling"

It's unclear what they mean by this figure or where they're getting the data. It is likely referring to global migrant smuggling, not just what is paid to criminal organizations helping to bring migrants across the US-Mexico line. Last year Nielsen testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that immigrants were paying Latin American criminal organizations $500 million a year to get into the US.

DHS did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the smuggling figure, but a DHS official told The Washington Post's fact checker in May that the $500 million number was derived from "conservative" math that calculated 100,000 migrants (about a third of the number of people who try to cross the border each year) paying $5,000 to transnational criminal organizations that would help smuggle them across the border. The $5,000 payment figure is pulled from interviews border agents have done with undocumented immigrants who have been caught, the DHS official told the Post.

A 2018 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that smugglers made somewhere between $5.5 billion and $7 billion globally in 2016.

Special interest aliens

Speaking in the Rose Garden on Friday, Nielsen said Customs and Border Protection has stopped over 3,000 "special interest aliens trying to come into the country on the southern border."

"Those are aliens who the intel community has identified are of concern. They either have travel patterns that are identified as terrorist travel patterns or they have known or suspected ties to terrorism," Nielsen said.

There's no uniform definition of the term "special interest alien," but former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defined "special interest" as being "from parts of the world where terrorism is prevalent, or nations that are hostile to the United States."

Either way, this figure is separate from the 3,755 individuals DHS has cited as known or suspected terrorists, and requires some context. A 2016 DHS Office of Inspector General report defined special interest countries as those "that are of concern to the national security of the United States, based on several U.S. Government reports."

Juliette Kayyem, a DHS assistant secretary in the Obama administration and a CNN national security analyst, said the countries make up a list longer than the State Department's officially designated states, and include "countries that promote or have a tendency to promote terrorism." The White House also said last year that Customs and Border Protection enforcement actions had been carried out against individuals from 22 "'Special Interest Aliens' countries."

Vulnerable people

The DHS presentation asserts that "border security is the only effective disincentive to prevent migrants from making the dangerous journey and reducing the influx of vulnerable families." Some academic scholars and advocates, however, rebut the idea that deterrence policy works in situations where people are fleeing dangerous conditions, which has become a more prevalent driving factor for migrants journeying to the southern border. Since 2010, the population of people coming to the US-Mexico border has shifted as a result of deteriorating conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, otherwise known as the Northern Triangle.

In 2010, migrants from the Northern Triangle made up 10% of people apprehended at the southern border; they now make up the majority of apprehensions.

The briefing further breaks down the numbers of who's arriving at the border: In fiscal year 2018, 60,000 unaccompanied minors and 161,000 family units came to the US. The figures appear to be aggregations of people who are determined to be inadmissible by Customs and Border Protection and apprehensions -- both are an increase from fiscal year 2017.

"Over the last five years, we have seen a 2,000% increase in asylum claims, yet 72% of migrants report making the journey for economic reasons and therefore would not typically qualify for asylum."

DHS data supports this claim, though the department has repeatedly claimed that immigrants have "exploited asylum loopholes." Asylum claims, according to DHS, have increased by 2,000%. Even so, a majority of asylum claims are denied, according to the agency: Nine out of 10 claims are not granted.

Takes away vital resources

"The exponential increase in vulnerable populations arriving illegally takes vital resources away from detecting and apprehending criminals, drug traffickers, and vulnerable aliens"

Customs and Border Protection released data last month breaking down the number of people arriving at the US-Mexico border with medical conditions. As stated in the briefing, on average, Border Patrol refers "approximately 50 cases a day to medical providers." Customs and Border Protection attributed the flu season and stresses of the journey as reasons for the medical issues arising. The DHS presentation goes on to note that 31% of women and 17% of men are sexually assaulted as they travel north. It's not clear, though, where the administration is pulling figures on how many people have been sexually assaulted on the trek to the border, given that reporting of such incidents is rare.

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