Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced this month that they have apprehended 787,161 people from the beginning of fiscal year (FY) 2019 through to the end of May 2019. CBP apprehended 144, 278 people in May alone, marking the third month in a row that more than 100,000 people have been apprehended. Relative to the end of May in FY 2018, apprehensions this year are up 178 percent. Although the number of apprehensions is rising, the number of criminal aliens encountered by CBP is lower than in previous years.
CBP identifies criminal aliens as those who have been convicted of crimes here or abroad if the conviction is for conduct which is also criminal in the United States. From the beginning of FY 2015 through the end of May 2019, the absolute number and percent of criminal aliens encountered by CBP, which includes Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations, have fallen in every year. In 2015, about 7.49 percent of all CBP apprehensions were criminal aliens or had warrants or wants out for their arrests (Figure 1). For FY 2019 through the end of May, only about 2 percent of people apprehended by CBP were criminal aliens or had warrants or wants out for their arrests. Some of those people arrested for warrants or wants are U.S. citizens, so these numbers exaggerate the extent of criminal arrests at the border.
The absolute number of criminal aliens apprehended is also dropping. If the number of criminal aliens apprehended continues to decline apace for FY 2019, the absolute number will be also about 25 percent below the total number apprehended in 2015.
From FY 2015 to FY 2019, the percentage of those apprehended by CBP who were non-criminals and without warrants or wants rose from 92.5 percent to 98 percent while the percentage who were convicted criminals fell from 5.9 percent to 1.5 percent (Figure 1). In absolute numbers, criminal aliens have also declined from 32,479 arrests in FY 2015 to 11,483 through the first eight months of FY 2019. If the trend of criminal alien apprehensions continues for the rest of FY 2019, there will be about 15,272 by the end of FY2019 — well below the 20,486 recorded in FY 2018.
One counter-argument against this finding is that Border Patrol agents are capturing fewer criminals. Those agents are now assigned to processing asylum claims, which means that fewer are patrolling the border and more criminal aliens are evading detection, which leads to the theory that the falling number of criminal aliens could arise from a lack of detection rather than the flow being less crime-prone. The number of single adults apprehended in recent years is evidence against that theory. They are most likely to be criminals or have warrants out for their arrests, but the number is roughly steady over the FY 2015-FY 2019 period even though the number of criminals encountered is falling. By the end of this fiscal year, their numbers should be at their highest level since FY 2015 if the trends continue, but the criminal arrests will be far below the high in FY 2015. This isn’t a slam dunk response but merely evidence against that theory.
The most consistent argument wielded in support of closing the border, harsher border security methods, or restricting asylum is that those being apprehended are criminals who pose a serious threat to Americans. Based on data supplied by CBP, the absolute number of criminal aliens or those with warrants or wants and their proportion of all apprehensions along the border are lower in FY 2019 than in previous years.
Alex Nowrasteh is the director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.