On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke campaigned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During one of his speeches, he criticized the notion of border walls or barriers, saying they were the answer to "a problem we do not have."
I’m here to tell you a profoundly positive story from the U.S.-Mexico border. We do not need any walls – $30 billion, 2,000 miles long, 30 feet high, that will not be built on the international boundary line, which is the center line of the Rio Grande river. That wall will be built well into the interior of someone’s ranch, someone else’s farm, someone else’s home. You and I will be forced to take their property to solve a problem we do not have.
400,000 apprehensions on our southern border last year. In the second year of the George W. Bush administration, it was 1.6 million apprehensions. And those 400,000 – so many of them are kids. Too many of them arrived here alone. Some, if they are lucky, came here with their parents. And now ask yourself – what in the world would compel you to turn your 6-year-old daughter over to a smuggler for a 2,000 mile journey? What would force you to grab your kids and walk those 2,000 miles or spend so much of it atop a train ... you only do that when you have no choice, when your government can no longer protect your kids, where you know death is imminent...
We do not need walls. We need to honor our asylum laws, our international obligations. We need to rewrite our immigration laws in our own image.
Watch the full video here (pertinent portion begins at the 13 minute mark).
While some of O’Rouke’s criticisms have been heard elsewhere, such as the issue of implementing eminent domain in order to use American citizens’ private property for the border wall, his overarching point that the United States doesn’t need barriers is lacking vital context.
First, O’Rourke states that the number of illegal immigrant apprehensions at the southern border has decreased significantly since the early 2000s. He’s correct, but his assertion is logically wobbly. Simply because there are fewer apprehensions today than there were years ago doesn’t mean that a particular tool that would produce further reductions is unnecessary.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), "a total of 396,579 individuals were apprehended between ports of entry on our Southwest Border" in fiscal year 2018. Additionally, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) working with the Department of Homeland Security estimates that in 2016, approximately 170,000 illegal immigrants successfully entered the United States between ports of entry.
There is ample anecdotal evidence from multiple CBP officers that border fencing in certain areas has helped them accomplish their job more securely, and led to decreases in illegal crossings.
Additionally, according to McClatchy, 15 to 18 foot tall steel mesh border fencing in San Diego, completed in 1996, is an example of physical barriers working:
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants in the San Diego sector decreased sharply between 1996 and 1997, from about 484,000 to 284,000. That 40 percent decrease was not consistent with numbers in other border sectors that year.
McClatchy does note, however, that in addition to the fences, Operation Gatekeeper, which began in October 1994, provided the San Diego border area with more CBP agents and equipment, which also helped facilitate a decrease in illegal crossings.
Next, O’Rourke states that "so many" of the illegal immigrants crossing the southern border "are kids," and "too many of them arrived here alone."
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protections statistics, of the 396,579 illegal immigrants apprehended at the southern border in fiscal year 2018, 50,036 were unaccompanied minors (0-17 years old), and 107,212 were part of "family units." This means that while approximately 60% of apprehensions were of single adults, and 27% were of alleged family units, just 12.6% of apprehensions were of unaccompanied minors.
O’Rouke uses emotionally charged language in his attack on the idea of border barriers, but when looking at the data, his claims don’t appear to reach the height of his emotions.