U.S. Immigration Debate Skewed by Bad Statistics

By Ernesto Castañeda*

Sign demarcating US and Mexico territory on the southern US border in El Paso, Texas / Ernesto Castañeda / Creative Commons License

Immigration figures have long driven heated political debate in U.S. politics – even worse in recent years – but the data often exaggerate the problem because the responsible government agencies are double-counting and media reports are analyzing the numbers incorrectly. Opponents of President Joe Biden claim that over 2 million undocumented immigrants have entered the United States each year since he became President. The numbers reported by relevant agencies should not drive headlines or be interpreted as stock tickers about whether immigration is up and down, but the data become political footballs serving generally anti-immigration political interests.

Border encounters involving people without immigration papers are just a small subset of all immigrants, emigrants, visitors, and border crossing commercial and tourist activity – almost 300 million over the past 12 months. Analysis of the numbers about border crossers reported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires clarification of what it considers “encounters.”

  • Because many people enter multiple times, the figures also reflect double-counting of many of the same individuals – sometimes more than five times each. Those of certain nationalities can be quickly removed and returned to Mexico for various reasons without adequate recording of their names and other details, making it impossible to know how many people are counted multiple times. Even those repatriated after a judge determines they do not qualify for asylum, humanitarian parole, or other special visa often try again and count as another “encounter.”
  • “Encounters” do not equal unique individuals but rather interactions between asylum-seekers or migrants and DHS personnel anywhere along the border. The U.S. Government reports, for example, that 1 million-1.3 million migrants were removed from the United States under Title 42 provisions intended to protect U.S. health in the context of the COVID pandemic – almost half of the total reported “encounters.” So “encounters” do not equal individuals entering the U.S. either.
  • The numbers include individuals whom the United States normally welcomes, including 140,000 unaccompanied minors looking to reunite with family members in the country, and over 20,000 Ukrainians. Russians and Afghans are in a similar situation. Cubans no longer are fast-tracked for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, but the U.S. government cannot deport them because neither Mexico nor Cuba will take them back. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Haitians, and others are fleeing situations that most U.S. observers consider intolerable.
  • Comparing year-on-year figures is also deceptive. During 2020, the acceptance of asylum-seekers came almost to a halt. The pandemic, Title 42, and the “Remain in Mexico” program (under which individuals who pass a “credible fear” screening are forced to stay in Mexico while awaiting a hearing) created a backlog and bottleneck for the normal mobility that had occurred in previous years. Shifts in DHS accounting between years have also exaggerated the impression of a surge.

Other observers have confirmed migration specialists’ concerns about the over-counting. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which monitors the staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government, reported in September that detention data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “is, once again, riddled with errors.” TRAC found “egregious” mistakes in several data categories that led the agency to seriously misrepresent conditions in its public statements.

While the U.S. government’s bad information makes precise calculations of migrant flows impossible, what is sure is that the total number of distinct individuals entering the United States without documentation is much less than 2 million a year. More credible estimates are that –after accounting for thousands of deportations – probably less than half a million people have been allowed in.

  • Among them, some were granted asylum – a right under U.S. and international law. Many others are welcome refugees and asylum-seekers like those from Ukraine and Afghanistan. Many others are waiting their turn in immigration court. Therefore, most of those included in this estimated half-million are in the United States legally, and the government knows who they are and where they live. By definition, they are not “illegal” or hiding. Allegations by a Texas senator and others that “4.2 million illegal immigrants have streamed across the border” since Biden took office are simply not true.

* Ernesto Castañeda teaches in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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