Are Trump’s Border Policies Driving Down Illegal Immigration?

Jonathan Haggerty

Illegal border crossings reached their highest point in over a decade this year, but the numbers have declined every month since May. How much of this recent drop can we attribute to the administration’s border security program?

One useful chart of the administration’s policies superimposed on the number of illegal border crossings shows no discernible relationship between the two. But one policy that the judiciary has not struck down—the “zero tolerance” policy—has almost certainly failed to deter illegal immigration. Worse still, it may have also weakened national security and public safety.

In the past, prosecutors had some discretion in deciding which immigration cases they would devote their scarce time and resources to prosecuting. Most did not prioritize low-level illegal entry cases unless the individual had a serious criminal history. 

Though this prosecutorial discretion might strike some as a failure to hold lawbreakers accountable, in reality, civil penalties are more than sufficient to deter illegal entry. An immigrant apprehended after illegally crossing the border will likely face deportation, a fine, and a bar from future attempts at legal migration. For people who have uprooted their families and traveled hundreds of miles through foreign terrain to escape the murderous hellscapes of their home countries, being sent back is likely the strongest deterrent we could offer. A few months in jail on top of that will not likely change the calculus. And in fact, multiple studies, including a review from the Department of Homeland Security, show no deterrent effect from criminal prosecutions for entry-related offenses.

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