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Is the Monthly Border Apprehension Metric the Best Way to Evaluate the Success of our Migration Management Strategies? Hardly.

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A new regional strategy needs a more sophisticated set of metrics


Every month, CBP issues monthly border apprehension statistics. Typically, it sets off a round of breathless media coverage. Upticks generate stories of a coming “crisis” or “wave.” Downticks are evaluated as “success.”  We question whether border apprehensions data are the best measures of “success.”

The above chart, shared by Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, shows the rise and fall of border apprehensions of child and family migrants over the past nine years. The number goes up and down, with the largest spike occurring during the Trump administration. As the visual makes clear, the January 2021 data are an uptick, but does it constitute a “crisis” or a “wave?”

Judge for yourself.

Moreover, the “crisis” or “wave” narrative, based mostly on border apprehension statistics is narrow, one-dimensional and myopic. What does it tell us about the percentage of border arrivals that are asylum seekers, the strength of their cases, the percentage of such cases found credible by screenings conducted by trained asylum officers, the factors that caused them to flee, the disposition of their cases, and the success of immigrants and refugees from those countries in America, especially given the high percentage who labor as essential workers in the age of a lethal pandemic?

More fundamentally, the obsession with border apprehensions is anchored in assumptions that need to be reexamined. The assumptions are as follows: migration is bad, migrants are a problem, and higher numbers are a crisis. What would the measures be if we started with the assumptions as follows?

  • Migration is good, especially when managed and directed through safe, humane and legal pathways;
  • Refugees fleeing violence and persecution should be protected through a fair process that provides freedom and welcome to those who qualify under sensible rules; 
  • Those who are admitted to pursue their asylum cases should follow through with their cases and comply with decisions, and to do so need to be supported with legal counsel, case management programs and work permission;
  • Reducing root causes can transform migration from a matter of life and death into a matter of choice; 
  • The admission of refugees and immigrants is a good thing that makes America a stronger nation.

The following is a statement from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

People come to America because they believe our nation is a beacon of hope. They want to flee violence, be safe, secure a future for their children and work hard in the nation that welcomed them. This isn’t the so-called ‘Biden effect’ on border apprehensions. It wasn’t the ‘Trump effect’ in 2018 when numbers spiked. It wasn’t the ‘Obama effect’ in 2014 when unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence spiked.

What we are seeing is the ‘American effect.’ For centuries, people have come from every corner of the world to America. People migrate, especially when doing so is the best way to stay alive and build a better life for their families. And America has been immeasurably strengthened as a result of welcoming refugees and immigrants. 

We have a new administration and they propose a new strategy. They call it a ‘transformative vision,’ a regional strategy related primarily to Central American migration, refugee protection, processing and resettlement, fair asylum rules, and humane treatment of those pursuing their refugee claims. The key elements: root cause alleviation strategies in source countries; refugee resettlement processing from source countries and neighboring countries; refugee protection opportunities closer to home; a fair and humane asylum process for those who apply at ports of entries; and humane programs that enable newly-arriving asylum seekers to support themselves as they pursue their cases.

We shall see if the new administration succeeds with its strategy. We hope so. In particular, we appreciate that the assumptions of the plan stand in stark contrast to the prevailing assumptions by nativists, critics and, unfortunately, too many journalists. The premises of this new strategy are that migration happens and should be managed with common sense rules that maximize safe, humane and orderly admissions; that refugees need to be protected, and not returned to the dangers they fled; and that, over time, migration should be a choice not a necessity. 

For this strategy, we are going to need a set of measures well beyond the monthly apprehension stats. We look forward to a more sophisticated, enlightening and realistic way of evaluating what we hope will be a more sophisticated, enlightening and realistic migration management strategy.