immigrants, migrants, refugees
Jen Reel

The Trump Administration’s Own Numbers Show ‘Zero Tolerance’ Didn’t Work

The “zero-tolerance” policy appears to have achieved only one thing: Making it extremely difficult for asylum-seekers to follow the law.


Border immigration statistics released Thursday appear to show that the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has not deterred asylum-seeking families from illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border or made a significant dent in overall immigration. The data, released by Customs and Border Protection, show that the number of immigrant families arrested after illegally crossing the southern border has remained steady over the past three months, hovering around 9,500.

“This shows what we’ve been saying all along, which is people fleeing persecution and fleeing for their lives are not going to be deterred,” said Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Deterrence doesn’t work; all it does is put people in further danger.”

The data also show the “zero-tolerance” policy has had minimal impact on overall unauthorized immigration. While there was an 18 percent decrease from May to June in the total number of undocumented immigrants encountered at the border, CBP itself says on its website that the drop conforms with a years-old “downward trend” occurring at this time of year. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment, and a CBP spokesperson declined to comment beyond a previously issued statement.

The numbers do show one impact of the “zero tolerance” policy: Fewer families seem to be turning themselves in at ports of entry to seek asylum — the exact action prescribed by law and repeatedly demanded by Trump administration officials. From May to June, almost 2,000 fewer undocumented families turned themselves in to customs officials at bridges —  likely because officials have been literally standing in the way.

“They’re turning people away and blocking the ports of entry, so it’s not surprising those numbers are down,” said Brané, adding that the government, in practice, was “countering its own advice” that asylum seekers should turn themselves in at bridges rather than crossing illegally.

Border Patrol “apprehensions” refer to arrests of immigrants who crossed outside official ports of entry. Family apprehensions rose sharply in March, and have stayed steady for the duration of the “zero tolerance” policy. Click to enlarge.  CBP

Thursday’s numbers fly in the face of the Trump administration’s justifications for its “zero-tolerance” crackdown — which began in earnest in April, and has led to
up to 3,000 immigrant children being ripped from their families.

In June, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether family separation was a “deterrent.” Sessions replied, “I see the fact that no one was being prosecuted for this was a factor in a fivefold increase in four years in this kind of illegal immigration. … So, yes, hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry and not break across the border unlawfully.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told NPR in May: “A big name of the game is deterrence,” adding that family separation is “a tough deterrent.”

But migrants and asylum-seekers are not being deterred, the new numbers suggest. The Trump administration has managed to inflict likely permanent trauma on thousands of kids, many still separated, over the last three months. But apart from that, it appears to have achieved only one thing: Making it extremely difficult for asylum-seekers to follow the law.

To claim victory, they’ll have to admit that’s what they wanted all along.

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