Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has taken a series of unprecedented actions to limit the ability of immigrants to request asylum in the United States. But among its earliest and most consequential decisions was to cap the number of migrants who it would process for asylum at ports of entry. This policy clearly violates federal law. More importantly, it forces asylum seekers to remain homeless in squalid and desperate conditions in dangerous Mexico border cities, leading many to cross illegally. The American Immigration Council and Al Otro Lado have challenged the policy (the government calls it “metering”) in court, and the government has argued that it lacks the resources to process undocumented migrants who arrive at ports to request asylum. In other words, it is violating the law
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Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has taken a series of unprecedented actions to limit the ability of immigrants to request asylum in the United States. But among its earliest and most consequential decisions was to cap the number of migrants who it would process for asylum at ports of entry. This policy clearly violates federal law. More importantly, it forces asylum seekers to remain homeless in squalid and desperate conditions in dangerous Mexico border cities, leading many to cross illegally.
The American Immigration Council and Al Otro Lado have challenged the policy (the government calls it “metering”) in court, and the government has argued that it lacks the resources to process undocumented migrants who arrive at ports to request asylum. In other words, it is violating the law because it simply physically cannot follow it. The challengers argue that this is a mere pretext for keeping out asylum seekers, and administration officials comments seem to confirm that this is the intention.
The data support their contention that the Trump administration has artificially reduced the capacity of ports without any reduction in resources for ports. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CBP provided me the number of CBP Office of Field Operation (OFO) officers permanently assigned to southwest border ports of entry. CBP-OFO processes documented and undocumented travelers who apply to enter at ports.
Figure 1 compares the annual number of “inadmissible aliens” along the southwest border—generally those without proper documents proving pre-approval to enter, many of whom want to request asylum—to the number of CBP-OFO permanently assigned officers. As it shows, the Obama administration in 2016 processed 82,106 more undocumented migrants than in 2012 and 2013—more than double the earlier amount—despite 97 fewer CBP-OFO officers. The Trump administration added officers every year—increases of 692, or 11 percent—yet it cut port processing.
But the annual figures significantly understate the reductions in port processing under this administration. In the month of October 2016, the Obama administration processed 20,524 undocumented migrants at ports. In October 2019, the Trump administration processed just 9,733, 53 percent less than the peak processing month, as Figure 2 shows. The average CBP-OFO officer at a port of entry went from processing 3.1 undocumented migrants per month to just 1.4 per month, a 56 percent cut.
Nor is it a matter of undocumented aliens appearing in one region that cannot handle them. Figure 3 breaks down the numbers by CBP-OFO field office. In all four regions, the numbers have fallen in absolute terms: 57 percent in San Diego, 38 percent in Tucson, 44 percent in El Paso, and 56 percent in Laredo. Only El Paso sector—with the fewest migrants—had fewer officers in 2019 than 2016 (a 2 percent staffing drop). Laredo oversaw the processing of 4,884 fewer undocumented migrants in October 2019 as October 2016, despite 235 more officers (10 percent increase). San Diego allowed in 3,537 fewer, despite 120 more officers (6 percent increase). Tucson processing fell 1,428, despite 143 more officers (18 percent increase).
Figure 4 depicts the number of undocumented migrants processed at ports per officer for each field office. Again, relative to the officers available, the Trump administration is processing far fewer migrants than the Obama administration in all four field offices. Compared to October 2016, the average CBP-OFO permanently assigned officer processed 59 percent fewer in San Diego, 47 percent fewer in Tucson, 43 percent fewer in El Paso, and 60 percent fewer in Laredo than in October 2019. The average officer in Laredo went from handling 3.6 cases in October 2016 to 1.4 in October 2019.
The per-agent figures also highlight metering’s absurd justification. The average CBP-OFO permanently assigned officer processed just 1.4 migrants in the entire month of October 2019. The resource excuse strains the credulity of the court and the public.
These numbers actually understate the issue because CBP also temporarily transferred an unknown number of officers to deal with “overflow” operations. While we don’t know the numbers of officers, CBP revealed that it transferred $6.7 million in funds to deal with “overflow” operations at southwest ports of entry in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, it transferred $11.3 and $8.4 million, respectively, and in 2019, the number rose to $28.1 million by July 22—a fourfold increase over 2016. In other words, there were far more temporary resources available in 2019 as well.
Ultimately, the purpose of metering is make immigrants so miserable that they give up and go home, but while it undoubtedly does make them suffer all sorts of atrocities, it also drives many of them to cross illegally. This makes illegal immigration worse and results in unnecessary, dangerous crossings. A man and his daughter who were turned away at a port of entry ended up drowning in the Rio Grande River in July.
This fact also further frustrates the “resources” excuse because this summer CBP found ways to process vastly greater quantities of undocumented migrants who crossed illegally between ports of entry. At the same time, it claimed a total inability to increase the numbers at ports of entry. DHS continues to evade responsibility for causing illegal immigration and its deadly consequences.