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About 178,000 people tried to cross the southern border in May.
In the same month, there were about 98,000 immediate expulsions.
An estimated 70,000 people evaded officials.
The visuals in video games can look pretty real, and we’ve seen social media users sharing action-packed clips from games as if they are the real thing. In the race to be the Republican nominee for Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat, an ad from venture capitalist Blake Masters doesn’t pretend to show actual footage of the southwest border, but tries to highlight a real concern many people have about border security.
From a drone’s-eye view, we look down on a landscape with hordes of people spilling through a wide gap in high metal fencing.
"250,000 illegals cross this border every month," Masters says."This is an invasion."
The scene shifts and sections of metal fencing rise up magically from the ground to close the gap. Masters’ voice continues.
"We know what to do," he says. "We need to finish Trump's wall. We need five times more Border Patrol. And we need technology to lock this border down."
Drones fly into the scene as background music swells. "If we don't do these things right now, we're not gonna have a country," Masters says.
This isn’t "Dune"-level special effects. By the time the border wall rises up, it’s likely that virtually every viewer would know this is computer-generated animation, not the real thing. But the production values are unusual. And its words are misleading.
Let’s unpack the numbers first.
The most recent figures are for May, and according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, the actual number of encounters with people who crossed illegally was about 223,000. Masters’ higher figure includes the number of times people were stopped and turned back at a port of entry — about 17,000. Those people never crossed the border.
But an important word in this case is "encounters."
"Encounters measure events, not individuals," said analyst Jessica Bolter with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy center based in Washington, D.C. "If someone crosses twice in a month, those will be counted as two separate encounters, even though they were both of the same individual."
CBP collects biometric data on each person it encounters, and can track repeat offenders. It reported 178,000 unique individuals who crossed the border in May, Bolter said. But even that is too high, because the way CBP reports the data, it includes people stopped at a port of entry.
The corrections to Masters’ number don’t stop there.
The ad’s animation shows people freely flowing into the country on foot. In reality, the official statistics show those who are caught attempting to cross the border and who seek out Border Patrol agents in order to turn themselves in and request asylum. In May, 98,000 of the 223,000 encounters resulted in immediate expulsions. About 23,000 people were sent to ICE detention centers, although many of those would be released with instructions to show up for further immigration proceedings.
There is a category of people who match the scene in Masters’ ad — the people that CBP labels "gotaways." As the name suggests, these are people who didn’t surrender to officials and evaded capture. Estimates vary, but one news service, The Center Square, said CBP unofficially estimated the number reached about 70,000 in May.
Although Masters said that 250,000 people cross the border "every month," CBP data shows that May was a high point. In earlier months, the numbers were lower. So far, in this fiscal year, an average of 138,000 people crossed or attempted to cross each month.
"It is extremely rare that 250,000 unique individuals would cross the border in a given month," Bolter said. "Further, a large share of those who do cross each month are not allowed to stay in the U.S. for more than a few hours."
When it comes to the computer-generated imagery, aka CGI, the consensus among the political ad watchers we reached is that this ad is unusual, but it functions like every other political ad.
"Is it unique in style? Yes," said University of California, Los Angeles political science professor Lynn Vavreck. "Is it unique in its goals? I don’t think so."
Political commercials always bend the truth, Vavreck said. Masters used "digitized images to present a reality that isn’t real, but that is a stylized version of the idea of the problem," she said.
Political scientist Kenneth Miller at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas doesn’t see any effort in the ad to fool voters into thinking that this was actual footage from the border. But it does raise questions about what tools political ads could lean on in the future.
"At what point do effects look real enough that we should be concerned about political advertising tricking viewers with images that seem real but are not?" Miller asked. "Current rules don't have a lot to guide us here."
Blake Masters, Border technology, July 11, 2022
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Land Border Encounters, June 15, 2022
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Custody and Transfer Statistics FY2022, June 15, 2022
Migration Policy Institute, It Is Too Simple to Call 2021 a Record Year for Migration at the U.S.-Mexico Border, October 2021
The Center Square, Preliminary CBP data of apprehensions, gotaways at U.S. southern border total 247,330 for June, July 7, 2022
Email exchange, Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute, July 14, 2022
Interview, Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor of advertising emeritus, Boston University, July 13, 2022
Email exchange, John Geer, professor of political science, Vanderbilt University, July 13, 2022
Email exchange, Kenneth Miller, assistant professor of political science, University of Nevada Las Vegas, July 13, 2022
Email exchange, Lynn Vavreck, professor of political science, University of California Los Angeles, July 14, 2022