Why Chris Wallace is as wrong as the Trump administration about threat ‘border-crossings’

Why Chris Wallace is as wrong as the Trump administration about threat ‘border-crossings’
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Do you know how many people tried to cross the U.S. southern border illegally last year?  Do you know how many succeeded?  Do you know how many were either special-interest aliens or on a terror watch list?

No, you don’t.

No one knows those numbers.  We don’t have them. We don’t know.

All we have for certain are apprehensions.  But apprehensions are not a total number, except in the narrow sense of being the result of what we were able to count.

When people slip into the country illegally and aren’t apprehended, they aren’t counted.

And we have no accurate idea of what that number is, either for illegal aliens in general, or for special-interest aliens, or for individuals on terror watch lists.

That, right there, should stop cold the high-fiving over Chris Wallace’s debate with Sarah Huckabee Sanders last Sunday.  I agree with Todd Bensman at the Center for Immigration Studies that the Trump administration seems to have been using the figures we do have carelessly: figures about actual apprehensions of special-interest aliens versus known or suspected terrorists.  But we know about the carelessness because of what we know about the known figures – not because of anything we know about the scope of the total problem.

That remains an unknown.  Let me emphasize it one more time.

We do not know how many special-interest aliens or known/suspected terrorists have entered the United States via our southern border, or have tried to.


For clarity on this point, you can review a study done for the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 on methods of estimating the total numbers of migration attempts – a study done because we don’t know what the figures are for “attempts” and undetected “successes.”  DHS realized it had problems measuring the effectiveness of border enforcement methods, because it doesn’t know the total scope of attempted migration across our land borders.  Estimates are the best we have in that regard.

The study concluded that existing methods for estimation have significant drawbacks.  Does that mean we have no earthly idea whatsoever; i.e., that we couldn’t tell between, say, 700,000 or 7 million a year?  No, of course not.  We’d notice a distinct disparity in societal effects on both sides of the border if the size of the unknown were that large. We have a very general idea of how many attempts there seem to be, based on a host of residual factors.

But that doesn’t mean we therefore have an idea of how many potential threats cross our border, or try to, in a given year, at a level of accuracy sufficient for dismissive policy choices.  It certainly doesn’t mean we know enough to say “there’s no crisis.”  The very fact that we don’t know is a crisis.

I hate to have to point it out, to people who are being honest and well-meaning, but the fact that we apprehend almost all of the special-interest aliens and known/suspected terrorists at airports is first of all a statistical artifact of the mode of travel.  Commercial air travel funnels everyone down physically into convenient counting chutes.

Crossing a 1,300-mile border doesn’t do that.  We don’t have the comprehensive information we’d need to proclaim that most terror suspects are trying to enter the United States via scheduled commercial air travel.  We only know that that’s how we catch most of the ones we catch.

Where you’re not dragging a net, you don’t catch fish.  At our southern border, we drag a series of small nets, and they catch a lot of fish.  But we have many miles of border where there’s no net — and very successful criminal industries exploiting that reality.

Notice that I am not suggesting any particular estimate of how many attempts we’re missing, or how many are successful.  I don’t know those numbers.  No one does.  The border is not completely unwatched, by any means, but neither is it under uninterrupted and perfect surveillance.  We simply do not know.*

Todd Bensman points out that we don’t know exactly what Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in her closed-door brief to members of Congress last week about the “more than 3,000” suspected terrorists supposedly “encountered…along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year or so.” I suspect what she said was pretty close to what’s been reported, as I know of no Republicans challenging the public accounts of it given by Democrats.

But it’s possible the Trump administration is trying to advance a valid point (if doing so with really counterproductive ineptness).  The valid point would be that if we’re catching more than 3,000 potential threats a year coming in through airports, where they’re pretty much bound to be caught if we’ve already flagged them by category or identity, how many are we not catching at the border – where they are NOT bound to be caught, because they’re not bound to be seen and processed?

Until everyone acknowledges that we do not know the extent to which almost all potential threat individuals try to enter the U.S through airports, there’s no point in continuing to yammer at each other.


* One place to start, in the project to figure it out, might be comparing how many times repeat border offenders get back into the U.S. undetected, in ratio to how many total times they’ve been detected at the border, and been caught back inside the U.S.  MS-13 criminals, for example, have often been here multiple times, and are sometimes caught when they commit crimes after returning, but not caught at the border during the return.

A gangbanger may have been caught inside the U.S. 10 total times, and been apprehended at the border 4.  His total (known) “engagements” would be 14, with a border apprehension ratio of 4:14.  That ratio would be of at least rudimentary use for estimating our effectiveness at stopping entry/reentry by motivated threat individuals with access to illegal-crossing networks.

As a general note, I would expect total land-border crossing attempts by potential terrorists to be a significantly smaller number than attempts by air travel.  Air travel is timely and convenient in a way the approach by land is not.  We should expect it to be tried first and to be the most popular choice, even though the probability of apprehension is higher.

But we have no way to quantify and certify that, because we don’t have the means to accurately count attempts and successes at surreptitious land-border crossing.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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