Why the Post's Monkey Cage piece about the border crisis is misleading (Update)

Yesterday a trio of academics published an analysis piece in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage vertical which it headlined “There’s no migrant ‘surge’ at the U.S. southern border. Here’s the data.” There’s something conspicuously odd about the argument this piece makes, which is that it sidesteps the issue everyone is talking about and instead talks about something different.

If you look around, you’ll see headlines like this one from CBS News: “U.S. races to find bed space for migrant children as number of unaccompanied minors in government custody hits 15,500.” Or this one from Politico: “HHS seeking use of two Texas military posts to house unaccompanied minors, Pentagon says.”

The crisis at the border isn’t generic, it’s pretty specific. The Biden administration has decided to allow minors apprehended at the border to remain in the U.S. while it mostly sends adults and some families back across the border. So the crisis relates to the fact that, for the past six weeks or so, we’ve had a big surge in unaccompanied minors which has quickly overwhelmed our ability to process them.

When unaccompanied minors are apprehended, the border patrol is allowed to house them in detention centers for up to 72 hours. But within that time it is supposed to transfer them to longer term (and better) facilities run by HHS. So it was big news a couple weeks ago that border patrol and HHS were so overwhelmed that many kids were staying in tough conditions much longer than 72 hours. The Washington Post story about this on March 10 was headlined, “At border, record number of migrant youths wait in adult detention cells for longer than legally allowed.”

The reason for the delays is obvious. We have more minors in custody now than we’ve ever had, it’s over 15,000 at the moment. As a result, we’re currently converting the Dallas Convention Center and the San Diego Convention Center into holding facilities specifically for minors. In a word, the crisis at the border is all about minors.

But yesterday the Monkey Cage analysis sidestepped all of that and decided to publish an analysis of the total number of all migrants at the border:

We looked at data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to see whether there’s a “crisis” — or even a “surge,” as many news outlets have characterized it. We analyzed monthly CBP data from 2012 to now and found no crisis or surge that can be attributed to Biden administration policies. Rather, the current increase in apprehensions fits a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure.

The CBP reports monthly data on how many migrants its agents apprehend at the southern border, including unaccompanied minors. The figure below shows the most recent data the CBP has made publicly available.

So this isn’t a review of data about unaccompanied minors, which is the thing everyone is focused on, it’s a review of the total number of people arriving including minors. Here’s the CBP chart they provided to show things really aren’t so bad:

The blue line is 2021 and the orange line is 2019, the last time we had a crisis at the border. Yes, the blue line is higher but the Monkey Cage piece explains this is because there is a backlog of people who couldn’t come last year because of the coronavirus. So things are bad but the argument is that it’s just normal season changes and therefore not a crisis.

There are two specific problems with this. The first is that the authors seem to be ignoring the fact that everyone considered the 2019 surge a crisis. I’ve referenced this many times but here’s the NY Times editorial board from May 2019. The editorial opens:

President Trump is right: There is a crisis at the southern border…

…as record numbers of Central American families flee violence and poverty in their homelands, they are overwhelming United States border systems, fueling a humanitarian crisis of overcrowding, disease and chaos.

So the first problem here is that the Monkey Cage is arguing things are only looking a little worse than 2019 without acknowledging that 2019 was widely considered a disaster. Border apprehensions peak in the spring and decline in the winter. That doesn’t mean the spring peaks aren’t a crisis simply because we see them coming.

The second point here is that by including unaccompanied minors in with all migrants, the piece is actually concealing the real nature of the problem. Here’s a chart from the same source page on the CBP website, but this one only shows unaccompanied minors:

Notice how much sharper the increase in the blue line (2021) looks in this chart. And that’s just February data. We’ve already surpassed that number this month with a week left to go. Yesterday the Post published a projection that the March numbers of unaccompanied minors could surpass 17,000 kids. That would literally be off the chart above. It would look something like this:

Again, that’s not an official chart, that’s just a projection based on current numbers plus the rate of kids currently arriving. But if this chart turns out to be pretty close to correct (and we’ll know in just over a week), you begin to see the border crisis that everyone is talking about. And, coincidentally, that peak happens to be the one group that the Biden administration has repeatedly announced will not be turned away at the border. Parents are literally telling their kids to go across without them but the Monkey Cage crew can’t see a connection to current policy.

To sum this up, that orange peak in 2019 was considered a crisis at the time and this year’s peak is looking worse. In fact, March unaccompanied minor numbers will likely set a record for the past 20 years. The Monkey Cage can call it normal seasonal change all it wants but that doesn’t mean we’re prepared to deal with this many kids at the border. The fact that CBP is holding hundreds of kids longer than allowed by law and that HHS is turning multiple convention centers into child migrant shelters should be proof enough that this is not a normal year.

Update: The Post’s own immigration reporter, who wrote this story with the 17,000 projection for March that I noted above, is pointing out that the Monkey Cage analysis relies on data from February.