Is Trump Right About The Southern Border?

U.S. Immigration. What happened? Are Trump’s claims of the border problems legitimate or an exaggeration of the norm to instigate voters?

The Background

When Trump came out swinging about immigration during his campaigning, I thought it odd considering the economy, while positive, was stagnant enough that voters were willing to evaluate their choices for president without giving the incumbent party a clear advantage. Surely there have always been problems at the border, this is true. But by campaigning on immigration I had thought that Trump was simply throwing red meat to parts of his base and border state voters.

The Data

Let’s take a look at immigration, specifically U.S. Southern border immigration, over the last decade. Has it remained stagnant? Has anything changed at the border?

Immigration Differences

Regular migration at the Southern border, for the majority of recent history, was compromised of Mexican circular immigration. What is circular migration? The International Organization for Migration defines circular migration as “the fluid movement of people between areas, usually for the purpose of employment.” For Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. this means that most immigrants, who were predominately male, would cross the border and temporarily settle in the U.S. temporarily while working and, presumably, sending money back home. Once they felt they had earned enough they would return to Mexico.

If, under circular migration patterns, you also introduce a strict border policy you can exacerbate any existing immigration problems. Under strict enforcement those males coming into the country are now more likely to bring families and stay much longer. This has the effect of increasing permanent migration. For these reason border enforcement at the Southern border was allowed to be relatively loose.

Immigration Numbers

In 2010 roughly 85% of Mexican immigration was circular, meaning 85% of Mexican immigrants were returning home after a certain amount of time. Of these 10% were families and unaccompanied children.

But the tone of immigration has changed, and not just because of political rhetoric – actual immigration numbers have changed drastically starting in 2012. Until 2012 Mexicans did account for 75-80% of Southern border crossings. But those number have changed, in 2014 they accounted for only 20-25% or Southern border crossings. Of these 60% are now families and unaccompanied children.

Immigration at the Southern U.S. border has changed drastically. As of 2014 75% or more of immigration were from non-Mexican countries – mainly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of the immigrants are seeking a traditional migration and not temporary or circular migration. In addition, many more immigrants are now seeking asylum – in 2012 there were 50,000 applications filed, in 2019 there were over 200,000 applications filed.

The Findings

If circular migration is falling dramatically then, from a policy perspective, we should be increasing our border enforcement in order to just keep our current permanent immigration levels steady. Had we had more or less free borders pre-2012 ~72% of those coming into the country would have left at some point due to circular immigration. Now, and after 2012, that number has dropped dramatically, to just 21%. This means that the government, spending as much as it did pre 2012 was relatively inefficient – because those efforts really would have only reduced long term illegal immigration numbers by 28% due to circular immigration. Since 2012 however, that number jumps to 79% almost tripling the value received from the same amount of effort. The executive branch, or more specifically, the president’s administration is responsible for the enforcement of our border policy. Both the Obama and Trump administration have responded in exactly this way, increasing border enforcement.

The other piece is the funding for the structural change that is absolutely required for the agencies administering the border. Congress is responsible for this. To date we have seen no major legislation for this.

In conclusion Trump has indeed picked up on a drastic change at the Southern border that had gone unnoticed for far to long. I may not agree with the execution of his rhetoric but in this case, he picked up on and made everyone aware of conditions at the Southern border. Maybe now we can actually do something?


  1. International Organization for Migration. 2008. World Migration 2008: Managing Labor Mobility in the Evolving Global Economy. IOM World Migration Report Series. Volume 4. Geneva: IOM.