Story highlights

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announced a 40% decline in illegal border crossings since January 20

Juliette Kayyem: This decline gives the Trump administration an opportunity to laud the merits of tough immigration policy

But it also undermines the need for a wall and is correlated with a sharp decline in tourism and legal migration, writes Kayyem

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, host of the national security podcast The SCIF and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Last week’s announcement by the Trump administration regarding a significant decline in the number of border crossings from Mexico presented an opportunity for the government to tout the benefits of tough immigration rules.

But, as is the case with most aspects of immigration policy, the numbers also reveal the complicated nature of migration – and, as a result, present a dual challenge for the administration. First, such numbers suggest that the “wall” is no longer necessary, if it ever was. And, second, the harsh anti-immigration sentiment in the country at the time the border numbers were collected is also having an impact on lawful migration, mainly in academia and tourism.

Juliette Kayyem
PHOTO: Copyright 2015 Douglas M. Wei
Juliette Kayyem

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly touted a 40% decline in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico since the start of the year. Generally, those are well trafficked months, so if the numbers are to be believed, it represents a significant decline in the arrests made and number of people prevented from entering the country.

There may be numerous reasons for such a decline: new border enforcement policies, including the decision that the United States will now return non-Mexican border crossers to Mexico; public statements from the administration that it is considering separating women and children who are caught at the border; and an otherwise unwelcoming atmosphere here in the United States.

Standing alone, the 40% decline represents a victory for the Trump administration, which has consistently touted tougher enforcement measures. And, in some cases, the administration is taking a tough line to protect people who migrate from dangerous conditions or are being taken advantage of by traffickers. But considered along with other aspects of the administration’s immigration policies, it may only prove to be a victory in the short run.

If there ever was a justification for the wall, it is now belied by these numbers. With border crossings at such a significant low, how can the expense of a wall be justified any longer? After all, Mexico is clearly not paying for the wall, and Trump’s misleading statements during the campaign about Mexico’s willingness to pay are now being felt by the American taxpayer. In fact, early budget proposals from the administration would take significant funding from the Coast Guard and TSA to pay for the wall.

When confronted with this paradox between the border numbers and Trump’s plan to strip agencies of funding for the wall, Sean Spicer merely said, “The president was very clear… He is going to fulfill that pledge. He’s already started to work with the Department of Homeland Security on both the plans and the funding mechanism, and the bidding and the RFP (request for proposal) process will roll out shortly. But that’s a pledge he intends to maintain.”

So, without a reason for the wall and without money to pay for it, the dilemma for the Trump administration is how to sell something that no one needs and that someone else isn’t paying for.

The other immigration challenge is likely more consequential for this nation. The Trump administration is clearly signaling to the outside world its desire to keep immigrants away. Kelly’s statement regarding a potential policy shift to separate women and children was a dramatic change, as the United States generally kept families together during any deportation proceedings. Whether or not Kelly actually enacts the policy, his comments were consistent with the idea of a much less welcoming America for all those who might consider coming here.

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Case in point: People who want to travel here legally.

Just as striking as the decline in border crossings is the decline in bookings and online searches for travel to the United States. The idea of a “Trump Slump” is evident in reports like those released by the Global Business Travel Association, which shows $185 million in lost US bookings. Emirates has reported a 35% drop in US bookings. And for the first time in nearly a decade New York City’s travel forecast has been lowered for international visitors.

This administration has a tendency to question numbers, so it is important to note that Kelly’s 40% decline statistic is not corroborated by any other source. But even if it is true, it isn’t a simple victory for the Trump team. The means and methods they have used to promote a vision of an America with its doors closed to the world may actually prove to be dangerously, successful – not only in the minds of those seeking to enter the country illegally, but to those looking to travel and spend time within our borders.