The Trump administration is using a misleading statistic to defend its immigration order

Let’s point out the statistics.
Let’s point out the statistics.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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The Trump administration has been telling anyone willing to listen that the number of people “detained” by immigration officials under the president’s Jan. 27 executive order is dwarfed by the number of people who are entering the US on any given day.

Their facts: 325,000 enter the US by air daily and 109 of those people were detained by officials. In other terms, one person out of every 3,000.

“I think this has been blown way out of proportion and exaggerated,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer, addressing the effects of the ban at a press conference on Jan. 30. “In a 24-hour period, 325,000 people from other countries flew in through our airports”

An unnamed senior administration official was similarly quoted as saying that in a typical 24-hour period 325,000 people enter the US by air, according to a press corps pool report.

The talking point is clear, but the salient facts are not. Firstly the White House’s figure isn’t wrong, it just isn’t entirely relevant.

The figure it is using includes Americans crossing the border. The wisdom of counting all travelers entering US airports from overseas when discussing the impact of a policy that only affects foreign travelers is uncertain at best. About half of the people traveling to and from the US are Americans.

The latest statistics from the International Trade Administration put arrivals by any mode of transit into the US by foreigners at 76.5 million people during the 12 months prior to and through July 2016. It amounts to 208,931 foreign travelers a day if you were to just divide the total by the 366 days there were over the period.

That figure includes entries by Mexicans and Canadians some of whom enter the US by car. We can exclude them to look at what is known as “overseas” arrivals. The total over the same time period is 38.3 million travelers: 104,525 a day.

Obviously many of those Mexicans and Canadians were arriving by plane, so the rough daily figure is somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.

But dividing by the number of days in a year isn’t quite sufficient here because there are huge seasonal effects on travel.

To take a simple daily average overstates volume during low times and understates it during peak times. It is currently a low time. The busiest time for overseas travelers is during July and August. The least busy months are January and February. Over the last five full years of data, travel has increased 74% from the winter low to the summer high on average.

Data for January 2017 won’t be available for months, but the most recent figures have shown little-to-no growth in international visitors over the prior year so last year’s figure might turn out to be a good approximation. In that case, there were 5.5 million foreign and 2.6 million overseas arrivals into the US in January 2016. That’s just 85,000 to 178,000 a day. In terms of the people detained, that’s between one out of 780 and one out of every 1,600 foreign travelers to the US, using the 109 figure.

Of course the claim that the number of people affected by the order is limited to the 109 people who were detained is also specious. If an airline doesn’t let a traveler board a plane—as was the case very shortly after the order was signed—they could never be detained by authorities after the plane lands. The Department of Homeland Security told the Washington Post that 348 people were denied boarding from the evening of Jan. 27 to the evening of Jan. 29 (about 174 per day), and that 392 green-card holders were processed after being initially prevented from entering. About 90,000 visas were cancelled as a result of the order, according to the State Department.

The Daily Beast estimates the total number of travelers immediately effected by the ban was 735 people.

The Department of Homeland Security did not return multiple requests for it to provide monthly international arrival processing statistics.