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FactCheck: Sen. Tom Cotton distorts border apprehension impact

Sen. Tom Cotton falsely equated the nearly 2 million apprehensions of immigrants attempting to illegally cross the southern border during Joe Biden’s presidency to “adding the entire population of Nebraska to this country.” He’s wrong for several reasons, including that most of those apprehended were immediately turned around.

“People who are not well informed about immigration trends and policies sometimes conflate apprehensions with successful unauthorized entries into the United States,” Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit that says it seeks to improve immigration policies through research and analysis, told us in an email. “Apprehensions represent actions taken by Customs and Border Protection officials to intercept unauthorized arrivals. And it also bears noting that apprehensions are events, not individuals. So, one person who attempts illegal entry three times counts as three apprehensions.”

Cotton’s claim came Jan. 30 in response to a question on “Fox News Sunday” about the Biden administration’s intervention in a dispute between Ukraine and Russia, and comments from some Republicans that Biden ought to focus more on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Well, it’s true that a lot of Democrats — to include Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and others — do seem to care more about Ukraine’s border than our southern border at a time when we had 2 million illegal immigrants cross our border under Joe Biden’s tenure in office,” Cotton said. “That’s like adding the entire population of Nebraska to this country.”

There have been nearly 1.9 million apprehensions of people trying to illegally cross the southern border from February 2021 through December, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And the population of Nebraska is roughly 2 million.

But the number of apprehensions at the southern border does not add to the U.S. population on a one-to-one basis. Far from it.

Breaking down the apprehensions

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 16, Sen. Lindsey Graham noted there were about 1.7 million people at that time who had been apprehended during Biden’s presidency while attempting to cross the southern border illegally. Graham asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for a breakdown for how many of those are “still here.”

Mayorkas noted that approximately 965,000 of them were immediately expelled under Title 42, a public health law the Trump administration began invoking at the southwest border in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic (and which Biden has continued in a modified form). Another roughly 40,000 were removed under other immigration authorities. About 125,000 of them were unaccompanied children who were transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and remained in the country. And another roughly 375,000 were released in the U.S. pending immigration enforcement proceedings — or, as Graham said, they were “still here.”

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So that comes to about a half million who remained in the U.S., although most were facing immigration enforcement proceedings, which could ultimately end in deportation.

Graham said that left about 230,000 unaccounted for, but as Mayorkas explained, not all of those apprehensions represent different people. In fiscal year 2021 there was a recidivism rate — meaning the share of people caught crossing more than once — of 27%. If that rate were applied to apprehensions during Biden’s time in office, it would mean that of the roughly 1.9 million apprehensions, about 1.4 million were different people.

“It’s just not accurate that 2 million people have been released or allowed into the U.S.,” Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told us in a phone interview.

Looking at the latest data for Biden’s presidency, there were 1.87 million people apprehended trying to cross the southern border illegally (not at a checkpoint) from February through December, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Of those, 56% — more than 1 million people — represent migrants who were immediately expelled under Title 42. And, as Mayorkas noted, given the recidivism rate, about a quarter of the 1.87 million were repeat offenders.

Mexican nationals, in particular, “are often immediately processed and removed,” as are those with criminal records, according to a 2018 report from the Department of Homeland Security.

“Existing enforcement measures are highly efficient at repatriating Mexicans, convicted criminals, and single adults who do not seek humanitarian relief,” according to the report.

Even among those who are not expelled, it’s a stretch to claim they have simply been absorbed into the U.S. population. A portion of them are placed into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and are later removed from the country, Bolter said. Others are released into the U.S. pending immigration hearings, and are monitored with ankle bracelets, while others are released without monitoring.

“It is not the equivalent of them being released into the U.S. with no accountability,” Bolter said.

Unauthorized population

Of course, not every person who crosses the border illegally is apprehended. On April 2, 2021, the Washington Post cited three anonymous U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials who estimated that “[n]early 1,000 people per day are sneaking into the United States without being identified or taken into custody.” And in October, former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott told Fox News, “We have over 400,000 documented gotaways, people or incidents, where people cross the border, got away this last year.” Although official data on the number of those who crossed undetected has not been released, the Migration Policy Institute concluded — based on those estimates noted above — that, “(i)f that trend has held and the got-away numbers cited for 2021 are accurate, there were about 540,000 successful unlawful entries in FY 2021.”

But even if that number — 540,000 — is accurate and added to the number apprehended but not immediately expelled, that’s still well short of 2 million, Bolter noted.

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Another way to check Cotton’s equating apprehensions to increased population is to look at estimates of the number of immigrants in the country illegally over time. For example, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that between January 2015 and January 2018, the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the U.S. remained fairly constant at 11.4 million, even though U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded over a million apprehensions over that period.

In addition to DHS, several other groups, including the Migration Policy Institute, the Pew Research Center and the Center for Migration Studies, provide yearly estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., based on Census data. Although the latest available are for 2019, the estimates from Pew and the Center for Migration Studies show that the overall number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. had been declining.

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, said that is now changing. After years of decline in the estimated number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, “all the evidence we have points to a large increase in the illegal population” since Biden took office, he said.

Camarota notes that, according to the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey, the foreign-born population in the U.S. increased by 1.5 million people between November 2020 and November 2021. While that includes immigrants who came to the U.S. both legally and illegally, Camarota said, “A good share of this must be due to illegal immigrants in the data.”

But Bolter, from the Migration Policy Institute, cautioned not to assume that the soaring number of apprehensions since Biden took office means there is an equally high number of unauthorized immigrants now living in the country. The number of new immigrants in the country illegally is offset by unauthorized immigrants who leave the U.S. in any given year. In recent years, Bolter said, due to economic factors, a high number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. have returned to Mexico, keeping the overall total relatively steady.

There’s one other factor to consider when determining the total number, and that’s visa overstays, Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute told us. She said, “For the last several years at least, new additions to the unauthorized population have been predominantly from visa overstays, not illegal crossings. (Though we believe a slight majority of the overall unauthorized population is comprised of crossers, not overstayers.)”

It is difficult to say with the available data whether the population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. is rising, and if so, what percentage may be due to illegal border crossing. But using border apprehensions as a proxy for that number is not the way to do it.

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Dominique A. Pineiro/Defense Dep't

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks to Navy Vice Adm. Michael M. Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, on July 31, 2019.

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