Republicans talked about the Canadian border. They skipped all sorts of details

Here's what Republicans didn't talk about when they talked about the Canadian border at a Capitol Hill news conference this week. Yes, irregular migration from Canada is up. The underlying numbers are minuscule. The Republicans skipped all sorts of details.

Increase in irregular migration from Canada is real — but numbers got inflated, conflated, cherry-picked

A man walks on a bridge from one side with a Canadian flag to the other side that has a U.S. flag.
A pedestrian crosses the Canada-U.S. border on foot between Quebec and Estcourt, Maine, in this 2006 file photo. (Reuters)

A group of Republican lawmakers left out all sorts of details earlier this week when they held a news conference in Washington to sound the alarm about a surge in migration from Canada.

They put some big numbers on a poster and included those same bulging figures on a handout distributed to journalists.

They noted, correctly, that irregular border-crossings from Canada are up.

Here's what went unsaid: The sum they were touting was a kitchen-sink statistical catch-all, a throw-everything-in-there mish-mash of federal data.

Meaning that the number of irregular crossings is so small, representing such a minuscule fraction of the total they touted, it's the equivalent to a statistical blip.

Lawmakers speak at podium outside U.S. Capitol.
Republican lawmakers, including Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, centre, held a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to warn about a surge in migration from Canada. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

The issue involves what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security calls "encounters" — and it covers a vast array of incidents at the U.S. border.

Such incidents range from the innocuous to the serious: from someone forgetting their passport or lacking proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, to missing a work visa, to being refused entry over a criminal record, to someone trying to sneak across.

Those figures, then, can frustrate migration-policy analysts. They argue the catch-all number winds up being used to confuse people more than enlighten them.

"The numbers require explanation and contextualization," said Kathleen Bush-Joseph, of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "Looking at encounter statistics, it requires getting into the details." 

The Republicans did not, by any means, sweat the details.

Take the fact sheet they handed out: It cited a 1,498 per cent increase in land-border encounters since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. Never mind that, in January 2021, land travel was severely restricted under pandemic rules.

The grand total: 2.7 per cent

So what are the numbers at the U.S.'s northern border?

The data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show about 165,000 encounters along the northern U.S. border since the start of 2022.

That's the stat Republican lawmakers showed.

Then if you filter that data for people being stopped between official ports of entry, here's what you'll find: 2.7 per cent. 

Ninety-seven per cent are people stopped at normal border crossings by CBP's Office of Field Operations.

To their credit, the Republicans listed the more precise, smaller numbers in a letter last week to the U.S. Homeland Security secretary, demanding details of his plan for the northern border. 

The detailed data shows about 4,500 people being stopped from migrating into the U.S. from Canada, between normal checkpoints, since the start of the 2022 fiscal year.

Which, as the Republicans correctly identified, is an increase: If the current rate held, the 2023 number could end up being triple the number last year's, according to U.S. data

Yet even that comes with an asterisk.

Ignoring the pandemic effect

The chart on the Republican poster starts in 2020, so it doesn't show the pre-pandemic level in fiscal year 2019

Using that year as a baseline instead, there's a less dramatic trend: a 35 per cent bump over 2019, not the 300 per cent when compared to last year. 

Digging down even deeper, some of that 35 per cent is due to pandemic rules: Back in 2019, travellers weren't being turned back at the U.S. border for lacking vaccine papers.

A sheet showing numbers, such as a 1,498% increase in border encounters since January 2021.
Republicans released this fact sheet showing eye-popping migration trends from Canada. It omits details. It conflates routine incidents with serious ones. It compares current land-border trends with January 2021, when there were severe travel restrictions linked to the pandemic. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

Some Republican lawmakers demanded more personnel at the Canadian border, saying they wanted more agents hired in their districts.

They decried the staffing disparity: the Mexican border has about 20 times the total number of U.S. border patrol agents as the northern border.

That is consistent with migration enforcement stats.

Comparison with Mexican border: there is none

The southern border with Mexico, since the start of the 2022 fiscal year, has produced about 20 times more encounters than the northern border with Canada.

But the disparity in migration runs even deeper than the fact that the Mexican border has seen 3.25 million of those so-called encounters, to Canada's 165,000.

The differences in the detailed data are more pronounced.

Again, a minute percentage of so-called encounters recorded at the Canadian border occurred between border checkpoints, 2.7 per cent.

It's the opposite along Mexico's border, where 91 per cent of so-called encounters involved Border Patrol agents, who enforce between checkpoints.

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Despite all these differences, another U.S. immigration expert said the recent trend with Canada is worth paying attention to.

For starters, she said, there's the question of migrant safety. It's undeniable that more are crossing, even in the harsh winter months. A family of four from India, for example, froze to death trying to cross from Canada last year.

"Due to the danger of winter crossings, [it's] still a concern," said Theresa Brown, an immigration analyst at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.

The trend also raises questions for U.S. policymakers, she said.

One involves the potential impact on already-strained U.S. immigration systems, with the courts that process such claims facing mounting backlogs and years-long delays.

Analyst: Still worth examining this trend

Brown further said this recent trendline at the Canadian border could indicate an emerging pattern in migration: people using Canada to get to the U.S.

For example, Mexican citizens don't need a visa to travel to Canada; they do need one for the U.S. And more than 2,100 Mexicans have been stopped by U.S. Border Patrol between regular northern border checkpoints since the start of 2022.

American officials, Brown said, will want to know what's driving this – whether it's new enforcement at the southern border or other phenomena.

The bottom line on this issue?

The increase is real. The numbers are tiny. And politicians, sometimes, cherry-pick from that great big tree of data.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.