The Importance of Transparency in Immigration

In the words of Joe Friday: 'All we want are the facts'

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 11, 2020

The last four years have seen an impressive outpouring of immigration statistics. The question is whether that will continue for the next four and thereafter, because in order for the people — and decision-makers, in that order — to support and guide immigration policy, we need to know the facts on the ground. In the words of Detective Joe Friday (played by the great and understated Jack Webb) on "Dragnet": "All we want are the facts."

How many migrants were apprehended by the Border Patrol entering the United States along the Southwest border in September 2020? CBP tells us, right on its website: 54,771. Of those, 3,756 were unaccompanied alien children (UAC), 3,808 were adults travelling with children (family units or FMU), and 47,207 were single adults.

The information gets more granular than that. In FY 2020, the slim majority of UACs were from the Northern Triangle of Central America countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras (combined 15,033), but more were from Mexico (14,359) than any of those three countries individually.

The fact that there were more Mexican UACs in FY 2020 reversed a trend from FY 2019, when there were more UACs from each of the Northern Triangle countries than from Mexico, despite Mexico's proximity to the United States. Why would all of those UACs travel so far to come to the United States? I would (and have) argued that it is because of loopholes in U.S. immigration policy that encourage them to do so.

Those loopholes have serious implications for DHS resources, border security, national sovereignty, and the safety of those migrants themselves, and I would argue that they need to be plugged. But without the statistics, that is just an opinion that critics can brush off as not grounded in fact. The statistics provide context and support for those opinions.

How many people claimed credible fear in expedited removal proceedings in FY 2019? USCIS tells us exactly: 105,439. Why is that important? Because it is an 1,800 percent increase from FY 2009, and a 240 percent increase from FY 2015. Why is that important? Because, again, I would argue that it has resulted from loopholes in our immigration laws. That is an opinion, and one I can back up with facts.

No facts, and it is just an assailable opinion, without a statistical basis. With those statistics, however, we can actually assess the degree to which policy influences migrant flow.

How many of those aliens actually get granted asylum by an immigration judge (IJ) in removal proceedings, which is the reason for the "credible fear screen" in expedited removal? The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the DOJ component with jurisdiction over the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) tells us: about 14 percent of all of those who claimed credible fear between FY 2008 and FY 2019.

On the other hand, 27 percent of those who claimed credible fear failed to appear at their removal proceedings, and were ordered removed in absentia (that is almost a third of those who were actually found to have credible fear, and who were placed into removal proceedings to apply for asylum, but who failed to appear at some point in that process).

That suggests that most people who claimed credible fear (and who passed the credible fear screen) did not have valid claims, and a significant number simply used credible fear to enter and remain in the United States. But it also indicates that there are valid asylum claims that need (and deserve) to be adjudicated quickly.

Speaking of asylum, EOIR also has a chart that compares the outcomes in asylum decisions over the 13-year period from FY 2008 to FY 2020. Since FY 2013, the grant rate for asylum has varied, more or less in the low 20 percent range. Oddly enough, though, the denial rate in that period has gone from a high of 54.55 percent in FY 2020 to a low of 20.35 percent in FY 2015 (when the grant rate was just 18.7 percent).

Where did the remaining cases go? Into a catchall category of "Other" (25.34 percent in FY 2015, which includes in absentia orders of removal), and "Administrative Closures" (almost 40 percent of all asylum cases in FY 2016).

As the Yale Law Journal has described that latter category:

Administrative closure is a procedural tool that temporarily removes a case from the active docket or calendar of an immigration judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals. For over three decades, immigration judges used administrative closure as a valuable case-management tool. It provided individuals the opportunity to pursue more promising forms of relief, eliminated unnecessary costs associated with remaining in active removal proceedings, and allowed judges to prioritize other cases.

Well, "valuable case-management tool" is one way to describe it. But administrative closure does not convey any immigration status to the alien respondent whose case is closed, so who really benefits?

Such a high administrative closure rate in asylum cases suggests either that a number of aliens filed weak or non-existent asylum claims with USCIS in order to get relief that they really wanted (like a green card through adjustment of status from an IJ), and/or that IJs were simply shelving cases to deal with a crushing backlog.

If it is the latter, it is an abuse of a humanitarian benefit. If it is the former, it means that we need more IJs and a quicker process for adjudicating asylum claims, for the good of the immigration system as a whole and for the aliens involved.

I can put forth those arguments if I have the numbers. Without the numbers, however, I am simply making assumptions about the effect of administrative closure, assumptions that those who benefit from delays in the removal process can dismiss as "baseless".

Immigration can be a passionate issue, with significant consequences for our nation. The government owes it to the American people (citizens, nationals, and legal immigrants) to ensure that the U.S. immigration system is credible and serves their interests, first and foremost.

If it isn't and doesn't, the people will turn against "our commitment to immigration itself", in the words of civil-rights icon Barbara Jordan, then-chairwoman of President Clinton's Commission on Immigration Reform, in September 1994. The only way we can have such assurances is if we have the facts, and in this case, the statistics.

This is especially true of immigration policy changes. If "hard cases . . . are apt to introduce bad law" (as Judge Robert Rolf stated more than 150 years ago in Winterbottom v. Wright), immigration legislation, driven by emotion and divorced from facts and statistics, will lead to the passage of bad laws that are simply going to make a challenging problem worse.

In the interests of all involved — legislators, the American people, and those future foreign nationals who have an opportunity to make this country home — we need to have as much transparency into the immigration system as possible. And that starts with the facts. Keep 'em coming.