President Donald Trump is a rabble-rouser and so, unsurprisingly, he roused the "rabble" in his campaign-style rally in Phoenix tonight. He all but pardoned
Sheriff Arpaio—a "bad hombre" if ever there was one who was convicted not for "doing his job" as Trump claimed in his speech— but contempt of court for continuing to racially profile Hispanics in search of illegals after he was ordered by a judge to cease-and-desist. And that, btw, was among the nicer things that Arpaio did during his decades-long reign as Maricopa County sheriff before he was roundly defeated last year. The vile conditions in his jails, his violations of inmate rights, and his illegal anti-immigration sweeps have already cost the county millions and millions in legal fees and settlements. Trump can issue fake and belated condemnations of neo-Nazis all he wants, but as former Reason writer Radley Balko noted in his comprehensive summary of Arpaio's vile shenanigans, a pardon for Arpaio would be a "reassuring wink to racists" who love that man for the simple reason that he hates brown people.
In addition, Trump doubled down on his pledge to build a Big Beautiful Wall on the southern border (where 10 times more people died between 1997 and 2007 than during the entire existence of the Berlin Wall). And he credited his former Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly for cutting "people coming inside"— meaning illegally crossing the border—by "70 to 80 percent."
Both those things are red meat for his base, of course. But one could ask what would be the point of building the wall which would cost American taxpayers upwards of $20 billion (given that even Trump is no longer claiming that Mexico will pay for it), when border crossings have dropped "70 to 80 percent" without it? Talk about a good deal for America! Be that as it may, how plausible is it that Trump's harsh border enforcement since he assumed office is actually responsible for the alleged drop?
More plausible than if he'd claimed to have caused the solar eclipse yesterday. But not by a lot.
For starters, illegal border crossings started to nosedive a full nine years before Trump assumed office after they rose at the turn of this century for two reasons: One, in the early 2000s millions of young Mexican men entered the job market when their economy was rather anemic. By contrast, thanks to America's IT revolution, the American economy was roaring and jobs in construction, hospitality, and of course agriculture were booming. The push factors in Mexico and the pull factors in America prompted many Mexicans to make a schlep north without visas because America discontinued its 1965 barcero guest worker program.
But in 2008 the Great Recession descended upon this great land, as the housing bubble burst. At the same time, the Mexican economy picked up, partly because of NAFTA that Trump actually hinted tonight he would scrap. And the two things in tandem caused illegal border crossings to plummet.
There is no perfect measure for border crossings. But Cato Institute's David Bier points out that after 2009, the flow of illegals essentially flatlined. In 2016, each border agent nabbed fewer than 17 people over the course of the entire year. That's one apprehension every two and a half weeks of work – all of which is far less the 400 per agent per year from 1977 to 1986 or over 100 per agent per year in 2003 etc. (Check out some nifty graphs in the above link.) In other words, Bier notes, the "crisis" of illegal border crossings has been over for a decade.
Now, it is true that the apprehension numbers are down a bit since Trump assumed office – but not because Kelly kicked illegal ass as Trump claims.
Usually, illegals come to America in the spring months when construction, agriculture and tourism pick up. But when Trump got the Republican nomination last summer and escalated his harsh anti-immigration plans and started yammering about the Great Wall of Trump, they made an immediate winter-time run for the border. Indeed, apprehension numbers spiked twice last year, first in spring as usual, and then in November and December after Trump won. There were 90,000 more apprehensions from August 2016 to January 2017 than between August 2014 to January 2015. In other words, because illegals that wanted to come to America this year were already here by the time Trump assumed office, border apprehensions experienced a drop. But this situation will reverse itself if Trump scraps NAFTA and tanks the Mexican economy.
All of this suggests that Trump can bullshit all he wants about securing the border, but the fact of the matter is that immigration flows follow the logic of the economy more and border enforcement less. And there is not a damn thing Trump or anyone else can do about it except waste a whole lot of taxpayer money on a futile and nasty enforcement exercise that'll kill more people at the border without making Americans one iota safer.