No Border Security Crisis

U.S.-Mexico Border, San Diego/Tijuana

Mark Twain once quipped that there are “little white lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He understood that numbers can be mustered to support any argument. Never has his assertion been truer than in the current furor over the border wall. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that Customs and Border Protection (CDP) caught nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists crossing into the United States from Mexico. The White House has since backed off that assertion, but is sticking to its claim that a security crisis exists on the southern border and insists that Congress must fund the wall that the president promised his supporters.

Sanders did not pull the figure out of thin air, but she grossly misrepresented the situation. According to government records, U.S. authorities stopped 3,755 people on the terrorism watchlist from getting into the country through all points of entry, including ports and airports, during fiscal year 2017. Given the broad nature of watchlist criteria, however, it is not clear how many of these people were actually terrorists. As for the southern border, an NBC news investigation based upon CDP data found that between October 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, CDP encountered only 41 people on the list along the U.S.-Mexico border, and that 35 of them were U.S. citizens entitled to enter the country legally. During the same period, CDP encountered 91 people in the suspect database entering the U.S. from Canada, 44 of whom were foreigners. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen refused to release exact numbers, claiming they were “sensitive,” but did not dispute the figures presented in the NBC report.

We can draw one of two conclusions from the numbers. Either we need a wall on our northern border more than we do on our southern, or the terrorist argument for more border security is bogus. Illegal immigration remains a chronic problem, although the number of illegals crossing the southern border has declined in recent years, but it is not an existential threat. The U.S. does not face a border security crisis nor has it done so in living memory. The wall is about politics. For the president of the United States to declare an emergency that does not exist to achieve a political objective without Congressional approval threatens our democracy more than any terrorist ever could.