During his first formal presidential news conference on March 25, Joe Biden took a flurry of questions about the U.S.-Mexico border, where rising numbers of migrants – especially unaccompanied children – are stressing the asylum system.
Reporters asked the president, among other things, about his responsibility for the increase, the crush of minors arriving at the border and when immigration authorities would allow news media in to view the conditions under which children are being held.
Biden resolutely defended his administration’s actions against Republican critics who say his pro-immigrant policies and rhetoric are encouraging migrants to come and precipitating a crisis.
Among other things, he said the rise in attempted border crossings is seasonal and driven by deep social problems in Central America that go beyond U.S. policy. And he said it would simply be wrong to turn unaccompanied children away without trying to connect them to family members.
But in his remarks, Biden also exaggerated or cited some incorrect statistics about the number of migrants now and during the Donald Trump administration. Polygraph.info reviewed four claims.
Who’s being sent back?
Biden correctly declared that “the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back.” This is happening under what's called Title 42, a policy instituted under Trump to automatically expel migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has continued the policy, although with an exception for unaccompanied children – which is likely one of the reasons that thousands are crowding overburdened facilities while they wait to be processed. Reports say as many as 18,000 minors are being sheltered in the system as of this month.
But at another point in his remarks, Biden stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is also “sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming.” That is false.
According to the CBP, the number of family units expelled decreased in February, the latest month for which there are official figures. Out of the nearly 19,250 family units encountered last month, 7,915 – or only 41% – were expelled.
“Nothing has changed,” Biden proclaimed. “As many people came — 28 percent increase in children to the border in my administration; 31 percent in the last year of — in 2019, before the pandemic, in the Trump administration.
“It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.”
Biden is correct that attempted border crossings often increase in the winter, when travel conditions are less extreme than during the hot weather of late spring and summer. However, Biden’s numbers of unaccompanied minors were wrong.
Under the Trump administration in early 2019, prior to the pandemic, encounters between CBP personnel and unaccompanied minors increased 31% from January to February (from 5,515 to 7,243). This year, the number of such encounters increased 61% from January to February (from 5,858 to 9,457).
Although March figures have not yet been posted on CBP's website, CNN obtained internal government documents showing that around 14,600 unaccompanied children had crossed the border this month alone.
The 28% increase Biden cited is the official overall increase in migrant encounters between January and February of this year – unaccompanied children, single adults and families combined.
To Biden’s credit, however, a comparison of unaccompanied children encounters for the early part of the pre-pandemic (2019) and mid-pandemic (2021) fiscal years does show similar totals: 28,942 for the October through February period in 2019 compared with 29,729 for the October through February period in 2020. (Federal fiscal years start in October and end in September. We are now in the 2021 fiscal year.)
Trump “eliminated” funding
Biden argued that to “deal with this problem” at the border, the U.S. must help solve the root problems in the countries migrants are fleeing. He stated that while he was vice president, he helped craft such a $700 million, bipartisan aid program for Central American countries, which Trump “eliminated” and “didn’t use.” That is an exaggeration.
The Trump administration did temporarily suspend some $700 million in aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in April 2019, but the U.S. State Department soon restored most of it.
Trump ordered sharp cuts in foreign aid to Central American nations in annual budgets but did not eliminate it. The $750 million foreign assistance to the region in the 2016 fiscal year dropped to an estimated $685 million in the 2017 fiscal year, and then to $445 million requested in 2020.
For the current 2021 fiscal year, Congress agreed on $505.9 million in aid to target factors driving migration. That amount, according to a January 2021 Congressional Research Service report, is “$129 million more than the [Trump] Administration requested but $27 million less than allocated to the region in FY2020.”
Trump shuttered holding space
Biden administration officials say they have inherited a broken immigration system. On March 14, for example, Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on MSNBC that Trump had “allowed the number of beds to safety, humanely house these children … to shrink to a record low number.” Biden picked up on that in his news conference:
“[Trump], in fact, shut down the number of beds available … And so, what we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild — rebuild the system that can accommodate the — what is happening today,” Biden said. That claim is also exaggerated.
When Trump became president, the monthly capacity in migrant holding facilities was about 8,000. That number was reduced to about 6,900 in October 2017 but expanded in the following months, nearing 15,400 in September 2018. It stood at more than 16,000 in December 2018.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, facilities had to cut capacity for safety reasons, sometimes by as much as half. In March, as unaccompanied children continued to be apprehended, the Biden administration ordered Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities to “temporarily increase capacity to full licensed capacity.”
The exact number of beds was not immediately released, but as of January 31, HHS said on its web site it had 13,239 at maximum.
Struggling to accommodate the increasing number of migrant children, the administration announced on March 12 it had “reactivated more than 200 beds for unaccompanied immigrant children and rescinded a Trump-era agreement that had led to the arrest of sponsors who stepped forward to take them in,” according to BuzzFeed.
Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was tasked “to help care for and assist unaccompanied minors” held in jail-like Border Patrol facilities, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was directed to assist with unaccompanied minors.
Last week, news reports said the Biden administration would repurpose convention centers, camps for oil industry workers and military bases for these unaccompanied minors, adding more than 16,000 emergency beds. CNN reported on March 28 that Biden's team “could need at least 34,100 additional beds to keep up with the projected number of unaccompanied kids arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border through September,” based on internal documents the network obtained.
Unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border are supposed to be held in HHS’s facilities for children until they are placed with a sponsor ("almost always a parent or close relative," according to HHS). However, given the lack of capacity, many have been held by the Border Patrol in “tent facilities or large, cold cells unequipped to hold minors,” the Associated Press reported, and for periods longer than the legal maximum of three days.
Of the roughly 18,000 unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody, 12,500 are under care of the HHS Office of Refugees Resettlement and 5,500 are in CBP facilities.
Editor's Note: Polygraph.info also recently fact-checked border statistics cited by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican.