Mostly True
Conyers, Jr.
"Apprehension rates at the southern border have plummeted since the 1980s, and apprehensions of Mexicans specifically have reached their lowest point in nearly half a century."  

John Conyers, Jr. on Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 in a subcommittee hearing

Mostly True: Rep. Conyers' claim about border apprehensions down since 1980s

A Border Patrol agent at the fence along the border between the United States and Mexico on the outskirts of Nogales, Ariz., on Sept. 22, 2016. (Tomas Munita/New York Times)

Democratic congressman John Conyers Jr. urged his colleagues during a recent hearing on immigration to examine measures rooted in fact.

One of those facts, he said, is that the southern border is more secure than ever.

"Apprehension rates at the southern border have plummeted since the 1980s, and apprehensions of Mexicans specifically have reached their lowest point in nearly half a century," Conyers, a Michigan representative, said March 28.

We know that apprehension rates have been down in recent months. President Donald Trump has taken credit for recent declines in southwest border apprehensions.

But is Conyers right that rates have plummeted since the 1980s, and that the number of Mexicans apprehended is at the lowest in nearly 50 years?

Border patrol data and research from an independent think tank back up Conyers’ claim.

Overall apprehension numbers since the 1980s

Apprehension data is commonly regarded as a measure of illegal immigration. When apprehensions are up, it’s often thought that more people have been trying to cross the border. However, apprehensions represent events, not individuals. For example, one immigrant may have been apprehended multiple times and all those instances are added to the totals.

Border patrol made 408,870 apprehensions at the southwest border in fiscal year 2016, and while that was an increase from 2015, it’s still a fraction of the number of apprehensions routinely observed from the 1980s through 2008, said a December 2016 statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

The recession of 2008 is likely to blame for the drop-off that started that year.

Conyers' team pointed to that statement and to historical data on apprehensions at the southwest border, specifically years 1986 and 2016.

In 1986 there were 1.6 million apprehensions – about 1.2 million more than in 2016.

But it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a steady decline since the 1980s. There have been increases and decreases over the years.

During the 1980s, there was an average of 1 million border patrol apprehensions at the southwest border a year. During the Obama administration, the average was below 500,000.

Apprehensions of Mexicans at the southwest border

The second part of Conyers’ claim was specifically about Mexican immigrants. He said their apprehension levels have reached their lowest point in nearly half a century, basing his statement on an April 2016 analysis by Pew Research Center.

Pew found that in 2015, border patrol conducted 188,122 apprehensions of Mexican nationals, the lowest since 1969, when 159,376 Mexicans were apprehended.

"The decline suggests unauthorized immigration flows from Mexico could be falling," Pew research reported.

Some reasons for declines in Mexican immigrants during and since the Great Recession according to Pew are: fewer jobs available, particularly in construction; stricter enforcement of immigration laws; and demographic changes in Mexico with decreases in the age of immigrants more likely to migrate. (In 2014, about 25 percent of the population was between 15 and 29 years old. In 1990, that segment was above 29 percent.)

DHS also has noted shifts in the demographics of people attempting to cross the border illegally.

Over the past 15 years, far fewer Mexicans and single adults are trying to cross illegally, the DHS noted in its December 2016 statement. But more families and children are being stopped at the border as they flee poverty and violence in Central America.

In 2014 and 2016, the number of Central Americans apprehended at the southern border outnumbered the number of Mexicans, DHS said.

Our ruling

Conyers said, "Apprehension rates at the southern border have plummeted since the 1980s, and apprehensions of Mexicans specifically have reached their lowest point in nearly half a century."

In recent years, average apprehension numbers have been below 500,000. In the 1980s, they averaged 1 million. A nonpartisan think tank found that the number of apprehensions of Mexicans in fiscal 2015 was the lowest since 1969. It’s worth noting that there have been some ups and downs in the numbers. But overall, the decline has been notable.

We rate Conyers’ statement Mostly True.

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Mostly True
"Apprehension rates at the southern border have plummeted since the 1980s, and apprehensions of Mexicans specifically have reached their lowest point in nearly half a century."
in a subcommittee hearing
Tuesday, March 28, 2017