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There Is No National Emergency on the Border, Mr. President

Summary:
President Trump today declared a national emergency on the border to construct some portion of his promised border fence.  “We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” President Trump said during his remarks today.    Lawyers will spill much ink arguing about the legalities surrounding the law and whether President Trump can declare a national emergency.  Regardless of what the law ultimately means, no reasonable person can look at the southern border and agree that it rises to the level of a national emergency.  Below, I will counter the most common arguments made by President Trump and others in support of declaring a national emergency. Crime The most common argument in favor of a national emergency is

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President Trump today declared a national emergency on the border to construct some portion of his promised border fence.  “We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” President Trump said during his remarks today.   

Lawyers will spill much ink arguing about the legalities surrounding the law and whether President Trump can declare a national emergency.  Regardless of what the law ultimately means, no reasonable person can look at the southern border and agree that it rises to the level of a national emergency.  Below, I will counter the most common arguments made by President Trump and others in support of declaring a national emergency.

Crime

The most common argument in favor of a national emergency is that there is an epidemic of immigration-induced crime and death on the border.  This is simply not the case.

First, the crime rate in the 23 counties along the U.S. border with Mexico is below that of counties in the United States that do not lie along the Mexican border.  Violent and property crime rates are both slightly lower along the border, but the homicide rate along the border is a whopping 34 percent below the homicide rate in non-border counties.  If the entire United States had a homicide rate as low as that along the border in 2017, then there would have been about 5,720 fewer homicides nationwide that year.  Murder rates in U.S. border states aren’t even correlated with murder rates in neighboring Mexican states.

Second, illegal immigrants apprehended along the border have a low criminal conviction rate.  When Border Patrol apprehends an illegal immigrant, they run their fingerprints through the IAFIS system and other databases to see if the individual is a convicted criminal or if he is wanted for crimes here or abroad. The government then publishes the number of criminal convictions that apprehended illegal border crossers have been convicted of by the type of crime. 

Table 1 shows the raw number of convictions of illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol by year and crime.  Over the entire period, the immigration crime of “illegal entry, re-entry” accounted for 42 percent of the convictions and “other” accounted for 16 percent.  The most serious offense of “homicide, manslaughter” accounted for 0.04 percent of all convictions of apprehended illegal immigrants from FY2015 through August 31, 2018.  

Table 1: Annual Criminal Convictions by Crime for Illegal Immigrants Apprehended by Border Patrol

Table 2 shows the criminal conviction rate by crime for illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol per year.  The immigration offense of “illegal entry, re-entry” is far and away the highest.  In 2018, the “homicide, manslaughter” conviction rate was 0.8 per 100,000 illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol.  Over the entire time, the “homicide, manslaughter” conviction rate was 1.8 per 100,000 illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol. 

Table 2: Annual Criminal Conviction Rate by Crime for Illegal Immigrants Apprehended by Border Patrol

The criminal conviction rates of illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol appear small when compared to their criminal conviction rates in Texas and overall crime rates in the United States.  Those are not ideal comparisons, but I would have to make too many assumptions to estimate the proper numerator for comparison: The number of criminal convictions against people in the United States who are currently outside of prison.

The number of apprehended illegal immigrants who have “homicide, manslaughter” convictions is falling as the percentage of the flow of family units and unaccompanied alien children rose from less than 25 percent of apprehensions in 2015 to just under 40 percent in 2018 (Figure 1).  Those in family units and children are less likely to be murderers.  Regardless, the number of criminal illegal immigrants trying to enter is tiny and many of them are being stopped currently – as they should be.    

Figure 1: Annual Family Unit and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehension Rates

Third, resident illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated or convicted of crimes than native-born Americans.  The estimated nationwide illegal immigrant incarceration rate in 2016 was 47 percent below that of native-born Americans, including those in immigration detention.  According to a different measure of illegal immigrant criminals incarcerated in state prisons only, their nationwide incarceration rate is about 28 percent below that of legal immigrants and natives combined.  Texas is the only state that tracks criminal convictions by immigration status.  In 2015 the illegal immigrant criminal conviction rates were 50 percent below native-born Americans while their homicide conviction rate was 16 percent below natives in Texas.  Only about 36 percent of that gap in criminal conviction rates between native-born Americans and illegal immigrants in Texas can be explained by lower illegal immigrant recidivism rates due to deportation.  Other researchers have found that illegal immigrant populations did not drive up non-violent crime rates nor did they increase violent crime rates. 

Fourth, Border Patrol agents are unlikely to be murdered while on the job.  If there was a national emergency on the border, we should at least expect that that would be reflected in a murder rate of Border Patrol agents killed in the line of duty.  From 2003 through the end of 2018, six Border Patrol agents were murdered on the job.  All of those are tragic, but that amounts to a murder rate of about 2 per 100,000 agents per year during that time.  That’s far below the national murder-rate of about 5.1 per 100,000 per year during the same time.  Other police officers (state, county, and local) have an on the job murder rate of about 19.7 per 100,000 per year during that time – about 10 times higher than Border Patrol agents.  Americans and police officers inside of the United States are more likely to be murdered than Border Patrol agents.

Fifth, there is no evidence that the federal government’s construction of a border fence in El Paso, Texas lowered crime rates there.  El Paso was a relatively peaceful city before and after the fence was built, with the exception of a spike in homicides a few years after the fence was finished.  That city’s experience with a border fence is not a good argument for building a wall to reduce crime.

Sixth, gang apprehensions by Border Patrol agents in the Fiscal Year 2018 (through August 31st), account for about 0.2 percent of all apprehensions.  One must take these statistics with a grain of salt, but there is no obvious large-scale crossing of gang members along the border.

Terrorism

The perceived threat of terrorists crossing the border with Mexico has been a major justification for beefing up security, but there is little justification for it.  Those most worried about terrorists infiltrating along the border cannot point to any attack, any conviction for planning an attack, or any plot planned by an illegal immigrant who crossed the border with Mexico from 1975 through the end of 2017.

From 1975 through 2017, a total of nine terrorists entered the United States illegally and only three did so along the Mexican border: Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka.  They crossed as children with their parents in 1984 and were arrested as part of the planned Fort Dix terror attack that the FBI foiled in 2007.  The Dukas are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia.  They crossed the border with Mexico illegally, did so as children, and became terrorists decades later.

The majority of immigrants apprehended along the border are from Central America.  Not a single terrorist in any visa category came from Mexico or Central America from 1975-2017.

Disease

Many commentators have recently written and said that members of the migrant caravan and Central American immigrants are bringing diseases, even those that have been extinct for almost 40 years.  However, the vaccination rates in Mexico and Central American countries are either very similar to those in the United States or higher.  Recent measles outbreaks have more to do with clusters of American parents who refuse to vaccinate their children than with immigrants.

Conclusion

There will be a long legal battle over the President’s declaration of a national emergency along the border to build some of his border fence.  Regardless of the outcome, there is no good reason to declare the border a national emergency.

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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