A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spinning Immigration Data


Both sides in the immigration debate are simply misstating the facts. President Obama exaggerated when talking about declines in illegal border crossings, and Republican Rick Santorum made a misleading claim about the foreign-born population in the United States.

  • Obama said that “over the past six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half.” Southwest border apprehensions are down 32 percent since fiscal year 2008, based on preliminary figures for fiscal 2014.
  • The president also claimed that the number of unaccompanied children being apprehended at the border “is now actually lower than it’s been in nearly two years.” Apprehensions are down from a spike earlier this year, but they still were higher in October 2014 compared with two years ago.
  • Santorum said there were “more people living in this country who were not born here than at any other time in the history of the country.” That’s true in raw numbers, but a greater percentage of the population was foreign-born from 1860 to 1920.

Obama on Border Crossings

In a Nov. 21 speech in Las Vegas about his executive actions on immigration, Obama went too far in boasting of a drop in illegal border crossings and the apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the border.

Obama: Now, when I took office, I committed to fixing this broken system. And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders, because I do believe in secure borders. And over the past six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half. Don’t let all the rhetoric fool you. There was a brief spike this summer in unaccompanied children being apprehended at the border, but it was temporary, and the number of such children is now actually lower than it’s been in nearly two years.

First, we should note that the federal government doesn’t — and can’t — track all “illegal border crossings,” which would include successful and unsuccessful attempts to cross the border. It only keeps statistics on border “apprehensions,” or people caught entering the country illegally. The numbers would include any repeat apprehensions of the same person as well. But this is the only hard data available on illegal crossings.

The White House did not respond to our request for information, but the president may have been referring to the decline between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2013, when total border apprehensions fell 52 percent from 876,704 to 420,789. But that isn’t the most recent six-year period covered by government data, and it also doesn’t reflect Obama’s time in office.

Obama came into office after fiscal 2008, when total apprehensions already had fallen to 723,825. In fact, apprehensions declined every year from fiscal 2005 (1.2 million) through fiscal 2011 (340,252), with the sharpest declines coming during the Great Recession. But they are now on the rise, increasing annually since fiscal 2012.

The Department of Homeland Security has fiscal 2014 preliminary data for Southwest border apprehensions, which make up the vast majority of total apprehensions. Those figures show that apprehensions haven’t declined by more than 50 percent over the last six years. There were 705,005 apprehensions of people illegally crossing the Southwest border in fiscal 2008, and 479,377 apprehensions in fiscal 2014, based on DHS’ preliminary numbers. That’s a 32 percent drop.

The available statistics also contradict Obama’s claim about child apprehensions.

The number of unaccompanied children being apprehended at the Southwest border has increased annually since fiscal year 2012, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In fiscal 2014, there were 68,541 UAC apprehensions, which is a 77 percent increase from fiscal 2013 and a 181 percent increase from fiscal 2012.

As the president said, the large increase in 2014 was due to a temporary spike that began in March and ended in June. And most recently, in October 2014, there were 2,529 apprehensions of unaccompanied children. That is lower than the figure of 2,986 apprehensions in February 2013, which was nearly two years ago.

But it’s better to compare figures from the same month since seasonal weather plays a part in attempts to cross the border. Comparing the same month, the 2,529 apprehensions in October 2014 were still slightly higher than the 2,333 apprehensions two years earlier in October 2012.

 Santorum on the Foreign-Born

Santorum, a former and possible future Republican presidential candidate, made his misleading claim on Nov. 23 on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Santorum, Nov. 23: The bottom line is, we have more people in this country — the last 20 years have been the largest wave of immigration in the history of this country. There are more people living in this country who were not born here than at any other time in the history of the country. And what the president is saying is, “We need more.” And working men and women are saying, “Hold on, what about us?”

The foreign-born made up a higher percentage of the U.S. population from 1860 to 1920.

U.S. Census figures show that 12.9 percent of the country’s population was foreign-born in 2010 (see page 3). That’s the highest percentage since 1920, when 13.2 percent of the population was foreign-born. The high point was 1890, when 14.8 percent of the population was born outside the United States.

In raw numbers, there were 40 million people living in the United States in 2010 who weren’t born in this country, which is the highest number, but the total population was the highest it had ever been, too, at 309 million people in 2010. Back in 1890, the foreign-born population was 9.2 million out of a total population of about 63 million.

Audrey Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, says that both the raw numbers and percentages are important measures. But if the aim is to look at the U.S. over time, the percentage of foreign born is the “more important indicator.”

Two charts from Singer’s 2013 paper “Contemporary Immigration Gateways in Historical Perspective” show the change in the foreign-born population and growth rates since 1860.

Singer told us the trend in the share of the foreign-born largely reflects the economy and job opportunities. The percentage of the population that was foreign-born was in the double digits from 1860 to 1930, and then again from 2000 to 2010. It was in the single digits in the decades in between.

Workers were needed in the early part of the 20th century during the industrial revolution. “In that sense there’s some similarities” to recent decades, Singer said. “We also have just recently been through a period of high economic growth,” pre-recession. The job sectors are very different, “but the root causes of immigration are very similar,” she said. Immigration is caused by jobs and economic opportunity.

“The largest number of immigrants on record for a decade was in the 1990s,” with most of the growth happening in the latter part of the decade, “when we were really transitioning very quickly to a knowledge-based economy with jobs that were more technology-oriented,” Singer said. That technology job growth in various parts of the country also led to jobs in construction, housing and other industries.

The dip in the foreign-born share of the population from 1940 to 1980 also can be linked to the economy, and in the middle of the century, the baby boom, when there were “really high birth rates in this country,” Singer notes, “and relatively small rates of immigration at that same moment.”

With the recent recession, immigration has slowed. The Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation published a report in 2011 showing that legal, permanent immigration to the U.S. had risen just 2 percent in fiscal year 2009, but 5 percent the previous year. Census data from 2013 show the foreign-born population has inched up by about 1.3 million from 2010 to 41.3 million. That’s now 13.1 percent of population, compared with 12.9 percent three years earlier.

The number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has plateaued, with the number hovering around 11.3 million since 2009, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.

Santorum’s claim refers to anyone living in the U.S. who wasn’t born in this country. That includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents and humanitarian migrants, as well as those who are in the country illegally. In 2010, Census figures show 44 percent of foreign-born residents were naturalized U.S. citizens.

Santorum also claimed that “what the president is saying is, ‘We need more [immigrants].’” But Obama’s executive actions to grant temporary reprieves from deportation pertain to those who have lived in the country continuously since Jan. 1, 2010, not recent or future immigrants.

— D’Angelo Gore and Lori Robertson