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Borderline facts

| Monday, January 23, 2017

In the autobiography of Mark Twain, he attributes to the 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli the wry observation that, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” No version of this quotation has been found in any of Disraeli’s published works or letters, but a similar expression citing “liars, damned liars and experts” was attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley by his son in an 1885 memoir. The first recorded use of “lies, damned lies and statistics” on this side of the Atlantic was in a speech made by Leonard H. Courtney, later Lord Courtney, while he was visiting New York in 1895 (which may actually be the source of Twain’s quote, with the attribution to Disraeli as a typical Twain-ian boost to credibility). Twain likely had to occasionally remind his audience (as Jon Stewart sometimes did) that he was not an expert, a statistician or an unbiased journalist, but rather a humorist who presented facts and observations for laughs.

Still, it is telling that as a nation, we have a long history of treating experts and statistics with suspicion, concerned that these sources of “facts” are at a remove from our experience of the world, and of the impressions received from other sources we trust. Recently, in the debate over “fake news” (more properly, “lies”), some commentators have taken issue with reports that the number of undocumented border crossers is near a historic low. This information runs counter to the consistent depiction by conservative politicians of a lawless and overrun border. The “lawless border” faction cites statistics they favor that show 408,870 people were apprehended crossing the U.S. border with Mexico this last fiscal year, nearly a 25 percent increase from the prior year.

Numbers of persons apprehended have recently risen, but they still remain historically low. Border Patrol data states the number of persons apprehended on the Mexican border averaged 523,000 a year in the 1970s, 999,000 in the 1980s, 1.26 million in the 1990s and 1million in the 2000s. In contrast, take a look at the most recent apprehension numbers: 463,382 (2010), 340,252 (2011), 364,768 (2012), 420,780 (2013), 486,651 (2014), 337,117 (2015). The Pew Research Center notes this coincides with data from Mexico’s statistics agency showing that the rate at which Mexicans migrated to the U.S. and other countries — legally and illegally — has held steady for the past five years after a dramatic drop during the recession.

Supporters of the view that the U.S. is currently subject to a veritable “invasion of illegal immigrants” assert that it is “fake news” to state that candidate Trump conjured up an invasion because the invasion is real. The main evidence they point to is a “massive increase in the numbers of apprehensions, particularly in the numbers of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) and Family Unit Aliens (FMUA).” It is true FMUA apprehensions are at a historical high and UAC apprehensions are surging back to levels seen in 2014. Most are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Combined, however, these arrivals make up about a third of total apprehensions, and that overall figure, as noted above, is near historic lows.

The fact that families and children make up a larger percentage of the persons apprehended points to changes in the overall nature of immigration at the Mexican border and the desperation of those seeking a place in the U.S. Why are fewer solo males making border crossings? There are a number of reasons, including tighter security, a relatively weak U.S. economy and Mexico’s falling fertility rate. Again, according to the Pew Research Center, last year more Mexicans left the U.S. than entered. The number of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. has fallen from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, representing 4 percent of the population, to the current estimate of 11.1 million, 3.5 percent of the population.

Perhaps the frightening claim most often cited by the “invasion” crowd, is that “criminal aliens” rape, rob and murder at an alarming rape, and they cite examples (a favorite few of which are repeatedly invoked) to support this claim. Supporters of this view have attacked CNN and Salon for reporting a study that showed immigrants were less likely to commit crime than U.S.-born citizens, saying media outlets twisted this to absolve undocumented immigrants when in fact the study referred to all immigrants (as if the documentation process itself filters out the criminal element).

However, to limit the discussion to undocumented persons, 1.9 million non-citizens have been identified by Homeland Security as removable criminal aliens. Of these, only 820,000 are undocumented, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Immigration Policy Center. Out of 10 million undocumented adults in the U.S., 8.2 percent have a criminal record and 3 percent have committed a felony; respective rates for the U.S. adult population are 27.8 percent and 8.6 percent. My personal observation is that the undocumented persons among us have extra incentive for being law abiding and mostly invisible to law enforcement.

So to get back to Lord Courtney, who followed the laugh line of “lies — damn lies — and statistics,” with an observation that is more germane to the current “fake news” wars: “ … still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.” Truth is not dependent on your world view but we must all be on guard that our world view does not lead us to wriggle out of the truth.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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