Despite uptick in border encounters, policies for adults traveling alone haven’t changed under Biden

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A group of state attorneys general sued the Biden administration over its plans to rescind a public health policy intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by expelling immigrants arriving illegally at the southwest border.

A federal judge on May 20 blocked the Biden administration from ending the policy, known as Title 42. 

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is running for U.S. Senate and was among those who sued the administration, tweeted a comparison of the number of adult immigrants traveling alone and encountered by border authorities in April 2020 and April 2022. 

In April 2020, it was 15,609. In April 2022, it grew to 166,814.

“Border policies matter,” wrote Brnovich, who ​​is seeking to win Arizona’s Republican primary Aug. 2.

This comparison has several issues.

Brnovich’s tweet insinuated that the change in the number of encounters is a result of different policies under President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. While some border policies have changed from one administration to another, those affecting adults crossing the border alone, which Customs and Border Protection classifies as “single adults,” have not.

Under the pandemic policy, immigrants are quickly expelled and don’t face penalties for crossing the border without authorization. This has led to more immigrants attempting to cross the border multiple times and has contributed to an increase in the monthly numbers of encounters, experts said.

Brnovich’s claim also doesn’t take into account the dynamics of the pandemic in early 2020, when lockdowns and restrictions were at their peak, and in 2022, when many of those measures had ended.

In fiscal year 2020,  the number of encounters at the border was the lowest in April 2020; encounters generally have climbed every month after. 

Looking at two months of data is ‘cherry-picking’

Brnovich’s tweet singles out CBP data from April 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when most of the U.S. and the world was under lockdown.

Policies limiting the movement of people both within the U.S. and across countries led to a decrease in migration worldwide. Vaccines had not yet been created, and personal protective equipment, like face masks, were scarce. Governments and health officials dissuaded many people from leaving their homes as they learned more about the virus and how it spread.

Two years later, the world has changed. Vaccines are more widely accessible, and most lockdown restrictions have been lifted. Some countries are dealing with battered economies as a result of the pandemic. 

While comparing similar months of immigration data is usually advisable, due to the seasonal nature of migration, experts said comparisons of April 2020 and April 2022 are not sound. 

“Selecting only two months from only two years as Mr. Brnovich did qualifies as an extremely selective and decontextualized comparison, or more colloquially, ‘cherry-picking,’” said Austin Kocher, a research assistant professor at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. “This does not mean that he is necessarily wrong in his conclusion, only that his choice of data does not necessarily add up to his policy conclusion.

Immigration policies at the border have remained the same for adults traveling alone

When an immigrant at the southwest border attempts to enter the country illegally,  officials have two options — and these options have been the same under both Trump and Biden. 

One option: enforce immigration law and either turn away immigrants or allow them into the U.S. to seek relief, such as asylum.

Another option: quickly expel immigrants to Mexico or their countries of origin, based on the pandemic policy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

When people are apprehended under immigration law, they can face legal consequences like fines, misdemeanor charges or barred access to future asylum. People who are determined to have repeatedly attempted crossing can also be subject to felony charges. 

But people who are expelled under the pandemic policy do not face any immigration penalties. As a result, there’s been an increase in the number of encounters recorded by CBP and in the percentage of people attempting to cross the border more than once.

Under Biden, there have been some changes in the implementation of border policies for unaccompanied children and families. But for adults traveling alone — the group that Brnovich highlighted — policies have remained the same. Kocher at Syracuse University said a shift in the tone around immigration from the Biden administration could lead to more immigrants trying to cross the border at the same time that COVID-19 restrictions have also relaxed. 

But experts also emphasize that U.S. policies alone don’t influence decisions to migrate.

“Migration has always been multicausal: that is, people migrate because of a wide range of intersecting drivers — poverty, criminal and political violence, climate change,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Many of these factors have been aggravated by the pandemic.

Our ruling

Brnovich said increased encounters at the southwest border in April 2022 compared to April 2020 are attributable to changes in border policy.

Brnovich’s data tracks with CBP’s numbers. But the cherry-picked numbers don’t tell the whole story.

In April 2020, lockdowns and the uncertainty of COVID-19 restricted people’s movements. By April 2022, testing and vaccines were more accessible, and lockdown restrictions were largely lifted. 

Border encounters have generally increased monthly after April 2020. However, immigration policies for adults traveling alone have been the same under the Trump and Biden administrations.

Brnovich’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.


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