“When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system,” Obama said Nov. 20. “And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders.”
Then Obama reeled off a few statistics, including this one: “Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts.”
We decided to check if those are indeed the facts regarding the number of illegal crossings.
We can’t know for certain how many illegal immigrants have tried to cross the border. We can only examine data that show how many have been apprehended or managed to settle here.
There is more than one way to measure the pressure at the border. You can look at total apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol, or you can look at changes in the estimates of the illegal immigrant population in the country. The first option of using apprehension numbers has the advantage of at least being based on actual reports of people detained by federal agents rather than surveys by the Census Bureau.
The Associated Press reported that the number rose to 486,651 in 2014, but a Border Patrol spokesman could not confirm that number because the agency has not yet released its number for the 2013-14 fiscal year. It’s possible that the number for 2014 will be higher than 2013, but we’re going to hold Obama to the confirmed 2013 figure for now.
By that measure, the number of people trying to cross the border is the lowest it has been since part of the 1970s. The last time it was lower than the apprehensions in 2013 was 1972.
There are some caveats about the data, particularly comparing more recent years to the 1970s.
In the 1970s, there were far fewer Border Patrol agents and no barriers, such as fences, said Jessica Vaughan, the policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for low levels of immigration. That led to a lot of people crossing or attempting to cross multiple times.
We have no idea, when using 1970s numbers, how many different people were apprehended. Some could have been apprehended multiple times.
With the addition of fencing and more agents in more recent years, people use smugglers to cross the border, which is more expensive and results in less traffic.
In the 1990s, the strategy changed from trying to apprehend as many people as possible to trying to deter them from entering in the first place, Martin said. Federal officials used sensors, cameras and other technology to identify recidivists and get a better sense of the actual numbers.
Vaughan said the border situation is so different now from the 1970s that “the comparison is pointless.”
Some of the professors we interviewed said we can still draw comparisons over time despite shortcomings about the data or changes in border strategy.
University of Virginia law professor David Martin said cross-decade comparisons are OK even though they are imprecise.
“I feel pretty confident that the level of crossings is lower now than at any time since the 1970s,” he told PolitiFact.
In recent years, illegal immigration has declined from Mexico in part due to improved job prospects there and the recession here. Apprehensions of immigrants from countries other than Mexico are on the rise.
Obama said, “Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is the lowest it has been since the 1970s.”
We cannot directly check Obama’s literal claim — which would include the number of people who failed and succeeded to cross the border — because those statistics are not maintained by the federal government.
Instead, we turned to the data that most closely aligned with what he was trying to say. Using Border Patrol data, we found Obama is correct on the sheer numbers for the number of people caught trying to cross the border. In 2013, about 420,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended at the border. The last time it was lower than that was 1972. After that year, apprehensions steadily rose throughout the 1970s, ending at just shy of 900,000 in 1979.
Experts noted, however, that Obama is creating an imperfect comparison because the border situation was far different in 1970 than it is in more recent years. In the 1970s, it was easier for people to make multiple attempts or excursions illegally across the border.
On a final note, it’s problematic for Obama to assume credit for the low numbers, as the trend started before he took office and the flow of immigrants across the border tends to correlate with economic conditions at least partially outside the president’s control.
We rate this claim Half True.