Illegal Immigration To The U.S. By The Numbers NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Sarah Pierce, policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, about illegal immigration to the U.S. and how today's numbers compare to years past. Pierce says we're at a low point today.

Illegal Immigration To The U.S. By The Numbers

Illegal Immigration To The U.S. By The Numbers

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NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Sarah Pierce, policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, about illegal immigration to the U.S. and how today's numbers compare to years past. Pierce says we're at a low point today.


President Trump speaks and tweets regularly about the immigration crisis the U.S. faces. It was a regular theme on the campaign trail.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They tell us the border crisis is the worst it's ever been.

CORNISH: He's mentioned it often in his weekly addresses.


TRUMP: We inherited a full-fledged border crisis. It was a disaster.

CORNISH: And in speeches, like this one last week before the National Federation of Independent Business.


TRUMP: The illegal immigration crisis on our southern border's been going on for many, many decades and many years. And it has its ups and its downs.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, those who study immigration patterns have been quick to point out that illegal immigration is at a relative low at the moment. For more, we're joined by Sarah Pierce. She's a Policy Analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. Welcome to the program.

SARAH PIERCE: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So we're hearing from the Department of Homeland Security that 50,000 people were apprehended at the border each of the last few months. Help us understand that. How big is that 50,000, looking back the last couple of years?

PIERCE: It's actually not that huge. So a lot of what President Trump has been doing is comparing the apprehensions in 2018 to the apprehensions we saw in 2017. And really, 2017 was a historically low year for apprehensions. In fact, we hadn't seen numbers as low as we saw in 2017 since 1971.

What a lot of us think had occurred during 2017 was maybe kind of a wait-and-see year on the part of migrants. They heard a lot of very strong rhetoric coming out from President Trump during his campaign on immigration. And it seems as if they decided to wait and see what was actually going to happen on the ground.

So in 2017, we had these historic lows. In 2018, we've seen these numbers bump back up. But in reality, they're just returning to the levels we saw before 2017.

CORNISH: I understand we have to go back all the way to 2000 to see the historic high point. And so at that point, what was considered high?

PIERCE: Right. So when you go back to 2000, we had 1.6 million individuals apprehended coming into the southern border. In the late '80s, we were also seeing 1.6 million individuals being apprehended per year. So now, the numbers we're seeing this year and the numbers we saw in 2016 are closer to 400,000.

CORNISH: If we go back to the high period we saw around 2000, what are some of the trends that contributed to what we saw between 2000 and now?

PIERCE: One major thing is a decrease in Mexican economic migration. So there's been a variety of things that happened. Of course, we had the Great Recession in the United States. But even as the economy in the United States recovered, we didn't see a recovery of individuals coming into the United States illegally who were just coming into the United States for jobs.

Instead, the illegal migration we've seen since the recovery from the Great Recession has been a lot of humanitarian flows. We've seen great increases in children coming unaccompanied, without parents or legal guardians, and families who are coming, all of whom are trying to come to the United States, or most of whom are coming to the United States to declare asylum.

CORNISH: So what do you expect to see in terms of the trend line? Do you expect this number to move up, or could it go down again?

PIERCE: I'm not sure. I think a lot of that is going to depend on the country conditions, especially in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, so Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. A lot of the migration that we've seen is driven by the conditions and violence in those countries. So I think a lot of it's just going to depend on what's going on there.

CORNISH: Sarah Pierce is with the Migration Policy Institute. Thanks for coming in to speak with us.

PIERCE: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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