This piece was originally published in The Hill on October 27, 2017.
President Trump has promised to reduce illegal immigration to the United States. More likely, however, 2018 will see one of the biggest waves of illegals from Central America since the start of the Great Recession.
The number of undocumented border crossings, which are unknown, can be inferred from arrest rates, which are well documented. Therefore, discussions of border jumping inevitably focus on apprehension rates, and we do here as well.
A new study by the Department of Homeland Security puts the border patrol’s interdiction rate at the Mexican border in the 55-80 percent range. The same study notes that smuggler fees to “coyotes,” who help migrants avoid the border patrol, appear to have increased by more than half since 2011, suggesting that law enforcement has indeed tightened.
On the other hand, arrests have remained range-bound around 500,000 annually since 2010, suggesting that the smuggling business has adapted. The statistics do not speak of an impenetrable border, but rather one that requires more planning and money than it used to.
For analytical purposes, a 55 percent interdiction rate seems about right. Just under half of those who try to cross the border, and are not deterred along the way, make it through. With that ratio assumed to be constant, we can draw conclusions about border crossings from apprehension rates.
Before the Great Recession, apprehensions at the U.S. border with Mexico often exceeded one million per year, at times by a considerable margin. With the collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008, however, the work prospects for migrants in the U.S. diminished, and arrests in the border zone fell by more than half, where they remained from 2010 until Trump took office.
As Trump took power, however, border apprehensions collapsed. Much of this was attributed to enhanced enforcement, which may have played a part. The numbers, however, suggest that intimidation from the president’s oversized personality played a decisive role. In fact, Trumpian intimidation took hold even before the elections.
Illegal crossings are seasonal. In a typical year, border crossings peak in the spring to early summer, as migrants cross for outdoors work in construction and agriculture. Crossings in the second half of the year are usually fewer, typically running only three-quarters the pace of the spring months. Last year was a clear exception to the pattern. As usual, the spring saw a peak in apprehensions, but rather than subsiding, the pace picked up afterwards and remained seasonally elevated until January — when Trump took office.
The pattern strongly suggests that Mexicans follow the news, too, and decided to bring forward their crossings in anticipation of stricter enforcement in the new administration. Thus, by Trump’s inauguration, border patrol had arrested perhaps 70,000 more crossers than seasonally expected. On the other hand, from Trump’s election to the end of this year, we project that 130,000 fewer crossers will be arrested than anticipated for 2017. In other words, much of the decline in 2017 can be explained by crossers advancing their border attempts into 2016.
Even so, Trump can personally take credit for deterring 110,000 putative crossers, of which perhaps 50,000 would have succeeded in entering the U.S.
The Trump effect, however, is not lasting. If not buttressed by action, the force of personality will fade. And so the data shows. Border apprehensions bottomed in April and have been climbing steadily since. They should be back at typical levels now.
And that’s not all. Expect a banner year for illegal immigration in 2018. With the ebbing of the Trump effect, crossings should return to typical norms, representing about 30,000 arrests per month. To that, add the crossers who deferred this year and will probably make an attempt next year, another 10,000 per month.These two factors alone would more than double the apprehension rates of 2017.
These trends will be exacerbated by a handful of critical economic developments. First, hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the recent California fires will require up to 250,000 man years for clean-up and reconstruction. And this comes at a time when the National Association of Housing Builders reports that an unprecedented 82 percent of construction firms are anticipating labor shortages.
Further, the restrained pace of crossings this year has meant that farm workers are in short supply in California, with wages of up to $16 per hournow offered, but few U.S. citizens interested in the work. For migrant workers, the prospect is all but irresistible. In Mexico, unskilled labor will earn $2.50 per hour, so an increase in U.S. wages from $10 to $15 per hour is the equivalent of increasing net U.S. wages from three times that of Mexico, to five times that of Mexico — which provides both the funding and incentive for elaborate and creative means to circumvent the wall and border patrol.
The Trump administration can unquestionably claim credit for reducing illegal immigration this year, which will come in at half the level of 2016. But the victory will be fleeting, and by next year, the border zone will return to business as usual, and then some. In 2018, the U.S. promises voracious demand for unskilled labor, and a willingness to pay a hefty premium to get it. As ever, undocumented migrants will respond to the call, by whatever means necessary to circumvent border controls.