The Americans see an “invasion” at the border. But what does that mean?


In February and March, as Russia prepared to invade and then invaded Ukraine, the word “invasion” appeared on Fox News at least 2,400 times a month. As developments in the war were overtaken by other news stories, mentions of the term plummeted: around 700 times in April and less than 400 in May. But last month the word rebounded, crossing the 400 mark again.

Why? While CNN and MSNBC had matched Fox’s “invasion” mentions earlier this year, they did not in July. What happened?

Fox News had turned its attention to another “invasion”: one it said was happening on the US border with Mexico. About half of the uses of the word “invasion” on Fox News have occurred in the context of the border or the word “immigration.”

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This idea that the United States is facing an “invasion” of migrants has gained widespread traction on the political right. Candidates running in the Republican primaries, such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, are using the increased number of migrants stopped at the border in the past two years as an argument with voters. Lake promised to issue an “invasion declaration” if she won in November, an action with unclear but obvious political ramifications.

On Thursday morning, NPR released a new poll by Ipsos showing that this language is widely accepted by Americans. More than half of poll respondents said it was “completely” or “somewhat” true that the United States was experiencing an “invasion” – including a plurality of Democrats. More than half of Republicans said the statement was “completely true.”

But here we get into tricky, albeit familiar, ground. What do we mean when we say “invasion”?

For many observers – probably some of you reading this article – that’s a dumb question. That means millions of people trying to cross the border, of course. And in broad strokes, it’s true. Since January 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has recorded more than 3 million border encounters.

But, already, perceptions come into play. stop 3 million people at the border, actually a bad thing, if you’re worried about the number of migrants coming into the United States? It’s like the repeated and deeply bizarre complaints from lawmakers (mostly Republicans) about the scale of border drug enforcement. When Donald Trump was president, the Republican Party touted drug seizures as a hallmark of border security. Under President Biden, it’s kind of a failure.

Or take this tweet from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.):

While arresting more people is an indicator that more people are probably looking to enter the United States, isn’t it? good that they are stopped if your goal is to limit entry? How is it an invasion if the so-called “invaders” – to use that loaded and pejorative term – are stopped when they try to enter?

As I have written before, the figures cited by Blackburn are also misleading in themselves. For example, huge numbers of people arrested at the border are then quickly expelled from the country under a policy introduced by Trump, allegedly in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since January 2021, 52% of those arrested at the southern border have been deported from the United States in a short time.

Moreover, this is partly the reason why the number of encounters is so high! People deported from the United States often quickly turn around and try to re-enter – and are often arrested again. CBP estimates that approximately 27% of those arrested at the border in fiscal year 2021 were repeat offenders. If that goes for this year as well, the fixture breakdown since January 2021 looks like this.

This is an estimate, as not all those arrested more than once were removed. But it gives an idea of ​​how the main figure of 3.1 million distorts what is happening at the border.

The impression that politicians and the media often try to give is that millions of people arrive at the border and then millions of people pour into the country. These reports of migrants commuting across the country give the impression that these millions of arrivals are somehow translating into a constant flow of new migrants into various communities.

In reality, relatively few people arrested at the border are released into the country. If we divide the encounter pool some other way, we find that less than a quarter of those arrested at the border end up being released, either through a “summons” for an immigration hearing, or after being released on parole or other alternatives. to detention.

“About a million people, since Biden took office, have been able to access the asylum process, have been released into the country in one form or another,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Council on Human Rights told me. Immigration in a phone call Thursday. His figure includes those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then released. In most cases, remember, they are released pending a court hearing which will often result in their deportation. (Most migrants show up for these hearings, by the way.)

A million people since January 2021 is a lot, sure, but it’s not exactly an unprecedented number – not a “record” as Blackburn would say. From 1990 to 2005, Reichlin-Melnick said, the average annual increase in undocumented immigrants was close to that level, even in a system where migration was more cyclical and centered around agricultural seasons.

This raises another question: how many migrants enter the country undetected? It’s always a retort when we remind people that quitting drugs isn’t a bad thing. Well, how many drugs are not to be arrested ?

For migrants, government data offers an answer. Arrest rates are much higher today than before.

The Department of Homeland Security offers two measures to estimate how many of those who should be stopped at the border actually are. The first is a observation estimate: how many people are observed entering without being stopped. The other is a model estimate, a statistical evaluation of the percentage of border commuters arrested. Over the past decade, the latter figure has increased dramatically.

“In 2006, when there were an estimated 650,000 escapes” – the term for migrants who are spotted but not apprehended – “there were an additional 1.5 million successful illegal entries on top of that which does not have never even been detected,” Reichlin-Melnick said. . “Today that is simply not the case. The border is covered in cameras and surveillance technology. Not to mention the increased barriers both under Trump and following the passage of legislation widening the barriers in 2006.

“They now say they detect over 90% of people crossing the border,” he added.

This data can be used to compile the number of people apprehended and believed to have entered the country illegally without being arrested. Reichlin-Melnick’s organization did just that.

Arrests are on the rise – but few of those who have been apprehended are being released in the United States. Some people cross the border illegally and go undetected, but this is happening much less frequently than before.

“Even though we’re at record highs for apprehension,” Reichlin-Melnick said, “we’re not close to breaking any records.”

So what is the invasion? That more people are being released in the United States than in recent years? That more people are being deported from the United States than usual?

The answer, of course, is that “invasion” is an inherently subjective word, influenced by how people talk about the situation on the border. That’s the other finding of the NPR-Ipsos poll: Public opinion on immigration has deteriorated since Trump left office, in part because public opinion often veers in the opposite direction to politics. public. In part, though, that depends on how the recent rise in apprehensions is framed by people like the senator from Tennessee and the gubernatorial candidate from Arizona.

Call something an “invasion” and people will start to believe it.


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