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Shawn Vestal: The myth of the immigration ‘emergency’

Josseline Garcia, 20, and Jennifer Garcia, 24, sisters from Guatemala seeking asylum, cross a bridge to a port of entry in to the United States from Matamoros, Mexico, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Brownsville, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP)
Josseline Garcia, 20, and Jennifer Garcia, 24, sisters from Guatemala seeking asylum, cross a bridge to a port of entry in to the United States from Matamoros, Mexico, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Brownsville, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP)

A faulty assumption has continually been employed to justify the current anti-immigrant zealotry, and it goes like this: We are being flooded with illegal immigrants. They are coming in an unstoppable wave. They are threatening our very way of life.

It’s an emergency!

Set aside, for a moment, the nativism and racism inside this rallying cry. Set aside how strongly such sentiments rely upon the assumed danger of the “they.” What’s particularly incredible about that mantra now – as we begrudgingly stop jailing toddlers at the southern border and ramp up racial profiling on Greyhound buses in Spokane – is that it’s not true.

Not growing. Not a wave.

Not – at least in terms of actual numbers – an emergency.

Last year, the Border Patrol caught about 80 percent fewer “illegal aliens” trying to enter the country as it did in 2000. In real numbers, it fell from roughly 1.6 million to 310,000, the lowest point since 1971, according to federal data.

In Spokane, the drop has been more precipitous: The agents in our regional office apprehended about 15 percent as many undocumented immigrants as they did in 2000. In real numbers, that’s 1,324 apprehensions in 2000, compared to 208 in 2017.

Drug seizures, meanwhile, show a lot of fluctuation. Nationally, the number and the weight of marijuana seizures has been steadily and dramatically declining. The same is true in the Spokane sector, though it went up in 2017 after several years of decline. Cocaine and heroin seizures fluctuate; meth has been rising steadily and alarmingly.

In other words, the statistical picture of drug trafficking along the borders is varied and inconsistent, reflecting a long-term, ongoing problem more than a matter of sudden urgency.

Statistics are always limited: Out of context, a rate of apprehensions may not correlate so much to the size of the problem as it does to the size of the force doing the apprehending.

What if the number of apprehensions plummeted because the number of Border Patrol agents plummeted?

It didn’t. Border Patrol employment has risen dramatically in those years, nationally and in Spokane. A lot of that came after 9/11. But Border Patrol staffing has more than doubled in the same time period – peaking at 21,444 agents in 2011 before dipping slightly again.

In the Spokane sector, that’s gone from 34 agents to 230.

Our immigration system requires reform. But a false sense of emergency has been used to peddle, develop and justify the abandonment of American principles and general human decency. That certainly won’t end just because the administration belatedly recognizes that most Americans won’t abide imprisoning asylum-seeking children.

But at a very basic level – at the level of the factual unit – what’s happening in the country is the opposite of what’s being sold in the immigration panic: Fewer people caught trying to sneak in, even as we’ve ramped up the number of people trying to catch them.

Still, from the top of the government to the field offices of the Border Patrol, the message has been that we are facing a growing threat that must be battled with greater zeal. This week, the Spokane Border Patrol office defended its ramped-up practice of conducting immigration checks on Greyhound buses in Spokane; Council President Ben Stuckart has urged Greyhound to put a stop to the checks, which he argues may violate Spokane city law against discrimination.

“Transportation hubs are used by alien smuggling and drug trafficking organizations to move people, narcotics, and contraband to interior destinations throughout the country,” a Border Patrol spokesman said in a statement. “To combat these growing threats, the U.S. Border Patrol has increased the frequency of transportation checks around the country as an additional enforcement mechanism to reinforce (the agency’s) world-class approach to border security.”

I called the Border Patrol office to ask if they had any concrete evidence to support the notion of these “growing” threats. I was told that the drug seizures show a clearly growing problem; some of those figures do show increases – meth in particular. Others show declines, such as heroin and marijuana.

And the overall picture, as compiled in the agency’s own easy-to-read charts, available on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, simply do not paint a picture of a growing problem.

Bottom line: The total number of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth seizures carried out by the Border Patrol and Office of Field Operations has dropped from 585,617 in fiscal year 2012 to 443,689 in fiscal year 2017.

Down 25 percent.


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