Fact-Checking Claims on the Migrant Surge at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Fact-Checking Claims on the Migrant Surge at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Originally Published in The New York Times

Linda Qiu - March 20, 2021

As migrants arrive at the southwestern border in increasing numbers, lawmakers and officials are misleading about border policies, migrants, the coronavirus and immigration flows.

A migrant camp outside Tijuana, in Baja California. The practice of expelling unaccompanied children ended because of a court ruling before President Biden took office.
Credit...Guillermo Arias/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With the number of migrants apprehended at the southwestern border expected to reach a two-decade high, Republicans are blaming President Biden for the surge, while Democrats argue that immigration system he inherited left him ill-prepared.

Here’s a fact-check.

WHAT WAS SAID

“The previous administration was expelling these unaccompanied children, some who are girls under the age of 12, for example, back to Mexico. We ended that practice.”
— Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, in a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

This is misleading. The practice of expelling unaccompanied children ended thanks to a court ruling before Mr. Biden took office, though his administration declined to resume expulsions when an appeals court decided it could do so.

Citing the threat of the coronavirus and using a public health emergency law known as Title 42, the Trump administration announced last March that it would send back to their home countries people who illegally crossed the southwestern border, rather than detaining and processing them.

In mid-November, a federal judge ruled that the administration could not expel unaccompanied children. As a result, expulsions of unaccompanied children fell from nearly 3,200 in October to 1,520 in November to just three in December and 18 in January.

An appeals court stayed that ruling in late January, once again allowing the expulsion of children, but the Biden administration has decided against the practice. It continues to send back adults and families, however.

“Unaccompanied children haven’t been expelled since November,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy counsel for the American Immigration Council, which advocates on behalf of immigrants. “They chose to keep the status quo in place.”

WHAT WAS SAID

“We inherited a government that had allowed the number of beds to safely and humanely house these children — administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee Resettlement — had allowed it to shrink to a record low number.”
— Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, in an interview this month on MSNBC.

False. The Biden administration is struggling to find space for migrant children and teenagers who have recently arrived at the border, with some sleeping on gym mats with foil sheets in processing facilities as they wait to be transferred to shelters contracted with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But Mr. Klain is wrong that the backlog is because the previous administration drastically downsized monthly bed capacity.

When the Obama administration faced its own surge of migrant children, the refugee agency increased its monthly bed capacity to about 8,000 beds in the 2015 fiscal year from about 2,000 in the 2011 fiscal year, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Under the Trump administration, monthly bed capacity fell to about 7,000 in October 2017, but grew to over 16,000 by December 2018. By Mr. Trump’s last full month in office, in December 2020, monthly bed capacity was at 13,000 — hardly a “record low.”

The issue, however, is that shelters could no longer operate at a full occupancy rate during a pandemic. The refugee office reduced capacity to at least 40 percent to comply with coronavirus protocols, before returning to full occupancy this month as the number of children increased.

A White House spokesman acknowledged that the maximum number of beds “theoretically” stood at 13,000 under Mr. Trump, but contended that the previous administration took no steps to mitigate the reduction in occupancy capacity or shortages in staffing that reduction caused.

WHAT WAS SAID

“The Biden border crisis, though, was created by Joe Biden’s promises of amnesty and open borders and free health care for illegals during the campaign.”
— Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, in an interview on Monday on Fox News.

“Yes, the signals that the Biden administration is sending by eliminating the migrant protection program or ‘Remain in Mexico’ program that was negotiated with the Mexican government, and as well as the failure to enforce the Title 42 public health order, which basically give the Border Patrol the ability to keep people out of the country who may infect the U.S. population, basically, they’re ignoring all of that.”
— Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, in an interview on Sunday on Fox News.

This is exaggerated. Both senators were partly accurate in their descriptions of Mr. Biden’s policies.

It is true that Mr. Biden has proposed a pathway for citizenship for the undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States and revoked the previous administration’s policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as they awaited decisions on their cases.

But Mr. Cotton is wrong that Mr. Biden promised “free health care” for undocumented immigrants. A spokesman for Mr. Cotton said the senator was referring to the 2020 campaign, when Mr. Biden raised his hand after Democratic presidential candidates were asked during a 2019 debate whether their health care plans would allow unauthorized immigrants to have access to such care. But there was no mention of “free” health care. Under Mr. Biden’s plan, those immigrants could buy health care plans including a proposed public option on exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.

Mr. Cornyn’s reference to Title 42 was also inaccurate. Though the Biden administration has decided not to expel unaccompanied children, despite a court ruling allowing the practice, it has continued Title 42 expulsions of most border crossers. In fact, out of the more than 100,000 encounters at the southwestern border in February, 72,000 led to expulsions.

WHAT WAS SAID

“When I talked to the doctor to see when they’re being tested for Covid, when they get out, more than 10 percent are testing positive, while you’re being stored together. In a time when the president will keep our country closed, when maybe we have hope for a Fourth of July to get together just with our family, how much spread of Covid is he creating every single day by his policies along this border?”
— Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, on Monday in a news conference.

This is exaggerated. Bob Fenton, the acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during a congressional hearing a day later that migrants were testing positive at a rate of “less than 6 percent” across the entire border. That is a lower positivity rate than currently in Texas (9 percent), Arizona (11 percent) and New Mexico (8 percent), but higher than in California (3 percent).

There are different coronavirus protocols in place for different migrant populations, but the notion that migrants are spreading the virus unchecked is hyperbolic.

Asylum seekers with pending cases who returned to Mexico under the Trump-era program must test negative before entering the United States. Those who test positive with mild or no symptoms are required to quarantine for 10 days, while those who show severe symptoms must seek treatment in Mexico, according to the State Department.

For migrants who are not immediately sent away and processed by border officials, the Department of Homeland Security relies on community organizations for testing and reimburses the costs, according to the department. Those who test positive while in Border Control custody are immediately isolated. Unaccompanied children specifically are tested at facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mr. Mayorkas, in the congressional hearing on Wednesday, acknowledged that the system was not foolproof.

“There were times earlier when individuals were apprehended and we sought to expel them and we were unable to expel them and we were compelled to release them and we did not have the opportunity to test them,” he said. “We are doing the best we can to ensure that the policy is executed 100 percent of the time.”

WHAT WAS SAID

“You can’t help but notice that the administration changes and there’s a surge.”
— Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, on Sunday in an interview on Fox News.

“We began seeing the increase in unaccompanied minors going back to last April 2020. This is not something that happened as a result of Joe Biden becoming president. We saw the increases dating back almost a year. And this was during the Trump administration.”
— Representative Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas, on Sunday in an interview on CNN.

Mr. Cassidy is ignoring that encounters with migrants at the border have been ticking up for months before Mr. Biden took office, while Ms. Escobar is downplaying that the increases accelerated in February.

“It’s both. We have been seeing an increase in overall encounters at the border since April of 2020, and there was a bigger increase than we’ve seen in the past few months in February,” said Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Border Patrol agents encountered unaccompanied children at the southwestern border 741 times in April 2020, the lowest monthly level in a decade. That number did gradually increase over the last few months of Mr. Trump’s presidency. But in February, Border Patrol agents recorded more than 9,400 encounters with unaccompanied children, a 61 percent increase since January, a 170 percent increase from February 2020 and the highest number since May 2019.

The exact impact of Mr. Biden’s policies or election on border crossings is difficult to gauge, as migration flows are driven by myriad factors and there has been only one full month of data under Mr. Biden.

“The push factors are at the highest they’ve been at quite some time,” said Mr. Reichlin-Melnick, ticking off political corruption, instability, poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The economic toll of the pandemic and two hurricanesthat battered the region toward the end of last year further exacerbated difficult conditions.

Conversely, better economic opportunities and the chance to reunite with family have pulled migrants to the United States, and immigration policy can act as an extra tug.

Rescinding the Remain in Mexico policy, halting the construction of a border wall, and ending agreements allowing the United States to return asylum seekers to Central American countries “have motivated people to try to enter illegally now,” asserted Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower levels of immigration.

Whether or not those specific policies spurred the rise, Ms. Bolter said that Mr. Biden’s promises of a more humane border policy have been one of the factors in increased migration — a point acknowledged by White House officials and by people crossing the border themselves.

But she cautioned that hyperbolic rumors and false advertising might also be at play.

“It’s not like everyone in Central America is paying attention to the specific policy positions to the Biden administration,” Ms. Bolter said. “Smugglers see these opportunities and they exaggerate them.”

Linda Qiu is a fact-check reporter, based in Washington. She came to The Times in 2017 from the fact-checking service PolitiFact. @ylindaqiu

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