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Immigration in 5 charts: a 2018 midterm report

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde October 7, 2018

Immigration is one of the biggest issues of the midterm elections in the wake of President Donald Trump’s actions restricting immigration over the past two years.

Republican candidates are touting their support for Trump’s promised border wall and charging Democrats with wanting to abolish ICE, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws in the United States.

For their part, Democratic candidates are casting Republicans as indifferent to the separations of immigrant families at the southwest border. They say a border wall won’t solve illegal immigration and will waste billions of dollars of taxpayers money.

The political rhetoric on immigration often ignores facts and important nuances about this complex issue. Amid the campaign ads and rallies, here’s an overview of key topics.

Apprehensions at the southwest border

Border apprehension data is generally used as a metric to measure illegal immigration. The numbers reflect instances when border patrol agents get a hold of someone attempting to enter the United States illegally.

Immigration experts say that people interpret the numbers differently: some might consider high apprehension numbers an indication of effective border enforcement; others might say low apprehension numbers show that U.S. policies are working to deter illegal immigration in the first place.

The number of apprehensions at the southwest border in recent years is nowhere near the high levels of the early 2000s.

U.S. border patrol recorded about 1.6 million apprehensions in fiscal year 2000. That number dropped to about 905,000 in 2003 and rose again to more than 1 million in 2004 and 2005, before steadily declining from 2006 to 2011.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, apprehensions averaged below 500,000.

Trump has credited his policies for a low number of apprehensions in fiscal year 2017 (that year included about four months of Obama’s presidency). Border Patrol agents recorded 310,531 apprehensions nationwide in fiscal year 2017, the lowest since 1971.

Apprehensions of children traveling alone have fluctuated in recent years. They peaked in fiscal year 2014, at more than 68,500. Apprehensions of families traveling together have also risen and fallen in recent years, but increased from 2017 to 2018.

The majority of immigrants arriving at U.S. borders in recent years come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in Central America, with people fleeing gang violence and poverty. This region is dubbed the "Northern Triangle."

Trump’s rhetoric against illegal immigration likely deterred immigrants temporarily, but didn’t stop it.

"Traditional deterrence tactics worked on young, male, Mexican economic migrants, but have not proven to be effective for migrants from Northern Triangle," said Rachel Schmidtke, program associate for Migration at the Mexico Institute, within the Wilson Center.

One of Trump’s landmark campaign promises was to build a border wall with Mexico, and have Mexico pay for it. He hasn’t delivered on that yet. Opponents of the border wall say it’s costly and not the most effective way to stop the flow of illegal drugs and illegal crossings. Also, Mexico firmly refuses to pay for it.

Immigration courts backlog

The Executive Office for Immigration Review — within the U.S. Justice Department — conducts immigration court proceedings, appellate reviews, and administrative hearings.

The number of immigration court cases pending at the end of a fiscal year have been rising for more than 10 years. There were about 186,000 cases pending by the end of 2008. This year? More than 700,000.

Why the backlog?

Lack of court personnel (immigration judges, legal clerks, and other support staff); insufficient funding; a surge in new cases; the nature of cases — many involving unaccompanied children  — all contribute, according to a June 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Some immigrants are seeking asylum, an immigration protection granted to individuals who have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries, based on race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Immigrants cannot apply for asylum in their home countries or at U.S. embassies or consulates. They must be in the United States.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute said in a September report that asylum cases are not the cause of immigration courts backlog — estimating they represent about 30 percent of cases — but are affected by it because some applicants have to wait up to five years for a hearing.

Reunification of immigrant families separated at the border

The Trump administration separated more than 2,300 immigrant children from their parents as they arrived at the border this summer, as a result of a "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

The "zero-tolerance" policy sought to prosecute adults who broke immigration laws. When they came in with children, the children were sent to the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services, and the parents were referred for prosecution.

After heavy criticism from Democratic lawmakers and children’s advocates, who said it was not in children’s best interest to be separated from their parents, Trump issued an executive order in June to keep families together, based on available resources. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released some families into the United States, with parents wearing a GPS ankle monitor.)

Under the pressure of a court order, the Trump administration has reunified most families. But many children remain separated from their parents. Overall, the number of children separated has fluctuated, and officials have acknowledged logistical challenges in pinning down the exact number separated by the policy.

The Trump administration originally identified 103 children under 5 years old, and 2,551 children 5 years and older, as the possible number of children in federal care who may have been separated from a parent and whose parents were potentially covered by the lawsuit.

According to the latest court update filed late September, at least 87 children under 5 years old had been reunified with a parent or sponsor. Regarding children 5 years old and older, at least 1,953 had been discharged to a parent, and 256 to a sponsor, or had turned 18 years old.

Of the total number of children originally identified by the Trump administration, some have had parents deported or who remain in federal custody, complicating reunification. Also, some parents are not seeking reunification, and some children were determined not to have been separated from their parents.

Deportations of immigrants in the United States illegally

Trump promised to deport all immigrants living in the United States without legal permission. This is an ambitious goal given that his predecessor, Obama, deported many illegal immigrants and was called the "deporter-in-chief" by immigrant rights activists.

There were around 226,000 deportations in fiscal year 2017 (which included about four months of Obama’s administration). That’s a decline from about 240,000 deportations in 2016.

Complete deportation data for Trump’s first full fiscal year, 2018, is not available yet. (The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.) But ICE told PolitiFact that there had been about 192,000 deportations up to June 30.

The "Trump Effect" at the beginning of Trump’s presidency temporarily lowered the number of migrants presenting themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border, said Schmidtke, from the Wilson Center. "It was a short-lived phenomenon," she said, "but affected the flows of migrants crossing and the number of people who could be detained by (Customs and Border Protection) and later deported."

Another reason why deportations so far haven’t spiked under Trump is because there’s been an increased resistance from some state and local jurisdictions to combat interior removals, with some adopting "sanctuary" policies to limit their cooperation with ICE, Schmidtke said.

What about deportations of gang members?

ICE began tracking gang removals in fiscal year 2014, but does not break down that data by gang affiliation. In 2017, ICE removed about 5,400 gang members and suspected gang members. In 2016, those deportations totaled 2,057.

Diversity visa program

Trump seeks to significantly cut down legal immigration to the United States. One way he plans to achieve this is by having Congress eliminate the diversity visa program.

The goal of the program is to allow in people from countries where not many immigrants have come from in recent years. The program is run by the U.S. State Department and was created through a bill signed into law by former President George H. W. Bush in November 1990.

An annual random lottery system began selecting applicants in 1995 from countries that had low immigration levels in the previous five years, with a cap of 55,000 visas a year to people who meet education or work requirements. The cap is now 50,000, after Congress decided to allocate 5,000 of the 55,000 annual visas to people eligible for the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act program.

Entries chosen in the lottery do not automatically get a visa, they only become eligible to apply and must meet "simple but strict eligibility requirements," according to the State Department.

The diversity visa program isn’t known to be a common U.S. entry tool for terrorists, but the Trump administration has advocated for the program’s end based on this argument. A man from Uzbekistan who entered the United States in 2010 through the diversity visa program is accused of an October 2017 terrorist attack in New York City that killed eight people and injured 12 others.

People who come to the United States via the diversity visa program must meet educational and work experience requirements and pass background checks and screenings by the U.S. government.

A sampler of immigration claims, fact-checked

False: Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, claimed immigrants can apply for asylum at U.S. embassies or consulates abroad. (They must be in the United States.)

False: Trump claimed there are thousands of immigration judges. (There are fewer than 400.)

False: Trump claimed a "horrible law" required that children be separated from their parents "once they cross the Border into the U.S." (No such law.)

False: Matt Schlapp claimed Obama had same policy as Trump causing family separations. (Family separations under Obama were relatively rare.)

Mostly False: Trump claimed MS-13 gang members are being deported "by the thousands." (ICE doesn’t track MS-13 deportations. Overall, thousands of gang members of all affiliations have been deported.)

Pants on Fire: Speaking of the diversity visa program, Trump claimed that "they give us their worst people, they put them in a bin," and "the worst of the worst" are selected. (He mischaracterized the program and its requirements, which include background checks by the U.S. government.)

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Immigration in 5 charts: a 2018 midterm report