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Fact-check: Republican candidates spar on immigration, crime, economy in second debate

Republican presidential candidates stand onstage for the second primary debate, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP) Republican presidential candidates stand onstage for the second primary debate, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Republican presidential candidates stand onstage for the second primary debate, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

By PolitiFact Staff September 28, 2023

The second Republican presidential primary debate had a raucous tone, with the seven candidates frequently talking over one another and the moderators calling for order. But themes quickly emerged, including the auto workers’ strike, crime, government spending, inflation and border security.

Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the polls, skipped the debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Participating candidates included North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

The candidates leveled accusations about allegiances with foreign governments and increasing spending during one another’s tenures. We fact-checked many of their claims.


Mike Pence: "Despite what's said here today, we reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90%."

This is False.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, immigration plunged worldwide as governments enacted policies limiting people’s movement. In the U.S., Trump instituted Title 42, a public health policy authorizing the Border Patrol to immediately return most immigrants back to Mexico.

Before the pandemic, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported only enforcement actions under immigration law; its data during the pandemic includes actions under immigration law and Title 42. 

Accounting for challenges in data comparisons, our review found a 300% increase in illegal immigration from February 2017, Trump’s first full month in office, to his last full month, December 2020.

One way to get close to Pence’s purported 90% illegal immigration decrease is by comparing data from May 2019, the month with the highest apprehensions during the administration, with data from April 2020, the month with that year’s lowest enforcement actions. But that’s a severely cherry-picked period.

It’s unclear what Pence means by "asylum abuse."

However, based on bills Republican members of Congress have introduced to reduce "asylum abuse," Pence might be referring to asylum seekers who are released into the U.S. to await their court cases and do not show up to their hearings. As PolitiFact has previously reported, most people who are released into the U.S. do attend their hearings.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks Sept. 27, 2023, during a Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Tim Scott: The southwest U.S. border under President Joe Biden is "unsafe, wide-open and insecure, leading to the deaths of 70,000 Americans in the last 12 months because of fentanyl."

Scott’s claim is misleading. Deaths from fentanyl jumped 23% in Biden’s first year in office to more than 70,000. But they have been increasing since 2014 and also rose during Trump’s administration.

Although immigration encounters at the southern U.S. border have spiked under Biden’s watch, experts say most of the fentanyl coming into the U.S. from Mexico is coming through legal ports of entry. The vast majority of people sentenced for fentanyl trafficking are U.S. citizens, data shows.

Chris Christie: Donald Trump "built 52 miles of wall."

The Trump administration built 52 miles of new primary border barriers — the first impediment people encounter if they’re trying to cross the southern border with Mexico, that can block access for pedestrians or vehicles — where there were none before.

The administration built 458 total miles of primary and secondary border barriers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows. The majority were replacements of smaller, dilapidated barriers.

The U.S.-Mexico border stretches for 2,000 miles across four states and a variety of terrain.

Ex-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis argue Sept. 27, 2023, during a Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Vivek Ramaswamy: "They're building cartel-financed tunnels underneath that wall. Semi trucks can drive through them."

It’s accurate that there are cross-border, cartel-financed tunnels, but unlikely that they can accommodate semi trucks.  

The Drug Enforcement Administration said in 2020 that cross-border tunnels have been found in California and Arizona and are associated with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Since 1993, the Justice Department said authorities have found more than 90 tunnels, about 25 of them around San Diego.

Historically, these tunnels have been used primarily to smuggle marijuana and illegal drugs. By federal law, U.S. authorities must fill the U.S. side of tunnels with concrete after they are discovered.

On average, U.S. semi trucks are around 8.5 feet wide and 13.5 feet tall. Underground cross-border tunnels tend to be long but not necessarily wide enough to fit the trucks. A tunnel found in 2022 between Tijuana, Mexico, and a warehouse in Otay Mesa, San Diego, had a diameter of 4 feet. Another one found in 2020 measured 5.5 feet tall and about 2 feet wide.

The economy and government spending

Doug Burgum: For electric vehicles, "the batteries come from China."

In most cases today, this is accurate.

Data from the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization, shows China produces about three-quarters of all lithium-ion batteries, compared with 7% to 10% for the United States.

China is also home to 70% and 85%, respectively, of production capacity for two key parts of electric-vehicle batteries: cathodes and anodes.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed in August 2022, offers tax incentives for U.S. lithium-ion battery production and for the supply chain to produce them.

The U.S. also signed a memorandum of understanding in early 2023 to help build an electric vehicle battery supply chain in Congo and Zambia, countries with rich supplies of cobalt and other key minerals. This would keep these materials from being exported to China for processing, as happens now.

However, establishing a supply chain that’s competitive with China’s could take years, Tu Le, the managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a transportation-focused business consulting company, told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks Sept. 27, 2023, during a Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Chris Christie: Inflation is "caused by government spending."

Government spending certainly affects inflation. But it’s not the only factor.

The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act added about $1.9 trillion to the economy, and economists across the political spectrum say it spurred inflation. They differ on how much the law affected inflation, with estimates ranging from two to four additional points out of the current inflation rate of about 8.5%.

However, none of the experts PolitiFact talked to for a previous fact-check, liberal or conservative, said Biden’s actions were responsible for all of the inflation. Past government spending, COVID-19-related labor market disruptions, shifting energy prices and supply chains also played significant roles. Most recently, the war in Ukraine has made a challenging situation worse.

Mike Pence: "Ron (DeSantis), you talk a really good game about cutting spending, but you've increased spending in Florida by 30%."

We rated a similar claim Half True. 

In 2018, the year before DeSantis became governor, Florida’s budget was about $88.7 billion. In 2023, DeSantis signed a $116.5 billion budget. That’s a 31% increase.

But Pence’s remark omits the other side of the ledger.

From 2018 to 2023, Florida tax revenue rose by about the same percentage as the state’s population grew. Pandemic federal aid boosted Florida’s budget, as it did in other states. And the Florida Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget for DeSantis to sign.

Nikki Haley: "Congress has only delivered a budget on time four times in 40 years."

This is correct.

"In the nearly five decades that the current system for budgeting and spending tax dollars has been in place, Congress has passed all its required appropriations measures on time only four times," the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group, wrote earlier this year. 

Those were in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997. 

Mike Pence: "We brought 12,000 factories back to America during our administration."

This is accurate, but needs context.

When then-President Donald Trump cited this statistic in his 2020 State of the Union address, CNN’s fact-checking unit called it "correct," citing the Census Bureau's Statistics of U.S. Businesses data series and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

But the term "factories" includes everything from large to small establishments, and the pattern for total manufacturing employment was not as strong during the Trump-Pence administration as the pattern for manufacturing establishments.

From the start of Trump’s term to the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. manufacturing employment rose by 419,000. By comparison, since Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, manufacturing employment has risen by 801,000, almost twice as fast in a shorter period.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks Sept. 27, 2023, during a Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Mike Pence: "Wages are not keeping up with inflation."

It depends on the time frame measured. Pence is on track if you look at the start of Biden’s term to today. A standard measure of worker pay compared with inflation — median usual weekly inflation-adjusted earnings for full-time wage and salary workers age 16 years and older — shows that weekly wages were $373 in the first quarter of 2021, when Biden took office, and were $365 in the second quarter of 2023. That’s a 2% decline after accounting for inflation.

However, for each of the past four quarters — a yearlong period in which inflation has eased — wages have been rising faster than inflation. From 2022’s second quarter to 2023’s second quarter, weekly wages rose from $359 to $365 after inflation.

Also, inflation-adjusted wages today are just shy of where they were before the coronavirus pandemic, when they were $367 a week.

Vivek Ramaswamy: As president, I will "reduce the federal employee headcount by 75%."

Legal experts told PolitiFact they are dubious about this plan, saying it would need congressional approval and could not be accomplished by presidential action alone.

Anne Marie Lofaso, a West Virginia University law professor, said Ramaswamy is arguing "that the president can unilaterally repeal a statute that authorizes the establishment of a government agency. That would be a radical revision of presidential power and a likely violation of separation of powers."

Donald F. Kettl, the former dean of the University of Maryland’s public policy school, said a 2017 analysis by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, rebutted Ramaswamy’s proposal. It concluded that the president "has no statutory authority to reorganize the executive branch, except where acts of Congress delegate authority to make particular changes." 

Tim Scott, to Nikki Haley: "As the U.N. ambassador, you literally put $50,000 on curtains."

This is misleading. The U.S. State Department under the Obama administration purchased $50,000 curtains for the official residence of the ambassador to the United Nations, The New York Times reported. 

In 2016, the State Department moved the ambassador’s official residence out of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan after a Chinese insurance company bought the hotel. The State Department leased a new residence in Manhattan and Haley became its first occupant when Trump named her U.N. ambassador in 2017. 

Custom, mechanized curtains costing $52,701 were installed, but the decision to move the residence and buy the curtains was made before Haley’s tenure. In 2018, The New York Times’ published a story tying Haley to the curtains’ purchase, but later issued a correction, saying its earlier story "created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question."


Nikki Haley: "Ron DeSantis is against fracking. He's against drilling."

This claim from a contentious moment rates Half True.

Haley said DeSantis "always talks about what happens on Day 1. You better watch out because what happens on Day 2 is when you're in trouble. Day 2 in Florida, you banned fracking, you banned offshore drilling, you did it on federal lands and you took green subsidies that you didn't have to take."

DeSantis interrupted Haley twice: "That’s not true," he said.

Two days into his first term, DeSantis issued an executive order with several water policy reforms and directed the Department of Environmental Protection to push to end all fracking in Florida.

But as DeSantis noted in the debate, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to ban offshore drilling for oil and natural gas on lands beneath state waters. As a presidential candidate, DeSantis says he will honor Florida’s ban, but is open to fracking elsewhere.

Ron DeSantis: "We have a 50-year-low in the crime rate" in Florida.

Data for this claim is incomplete. Crime figures are low in Florida, but DeSantis’ statistic comes from a state database containing information from law enforcement agencies that represent only about 57% of the state’s population, a Sept. 20 NBC News report found.

The patchy data is related to Florida’s transition to incident-based crime reporting, the new federal standard, rather than the summary-based reports it has used since the 1970s. With summary reporting, if one incident resulted in multiple crimes, only the most serious would be reported. In 2021, the federal government stopped accepting this type of data and now requires states to report each crime.  

The FBI’s crime reporting database doesn’t support DeSantis’ figure either. Only 48 out of 757 Florida law enforcement agencies participated in the FBI’s data collection in 2021. The numbers appear to be similar for 2022, according to an analysis by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Sept. 27, 2023, during a Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Ron DeSantis: 2.6 million Floridians without health insurance "is a symptom of our overall economic decline."

When moderator Stuart Varney pressed DeSantis on the relatively high number of Floridians without health insurance — Varney said it’s 2.6 million — DeSantis blamed politicians in Washington, D.C.

But the numbers from DeSantis’ own state Health Department show no correlation between the economy’s condition and the number of Floridians without health insurance. Despite population growth and economic changes, Florida had about 2.6 million uninsured residents from 2018 through 2021, and about 2.4 million in 2022. 

In 2022, Florida’s uninsured rate was 11.2%, higher than the 8% national rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Ron DeSantis: A proposed Florida school standard to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery was a "hoax that was perpetrated by Kamala Harris."

DeSantis is dodging the facts. The Florida Board of Education set new social studies standards for middle schoolers July 19.

In a section about the duties and trades performed by enslaved people, the state adopted a clarification that said "instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

Experts on Black history told PolitiFact that such language is factually misleading and offensive.

Transgender claims

Vivek Ramaswamy: "Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder." 

Medical experts disagree. Being transgender and having gender dysphoria — distress that some people may experience when their sex assigned at birth does not align with their gender identity — is not considered a mental health disorder. Historically, the diagnosis has carried the term "disorder," but experts no longer view it as a pathology and are working to destigmatize the diagnosis.

Previous terms such as "gender identity disorder" and "transexualism" have evolved into "gender incongruence," a condition the World Health Organization now considers a condition related to sexual health — not mental health. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, contains a diagnosis for "gender dysphoria," but experts say it remains partly to let insurance companies cover gender-affirming care and let incarcerated people access care.

Mike Pence: Linn-Mar Community Schools in Iowa had a policy where "you could get a gender transition plan without notifying your parents."

This needs more context. The Iowa school district in 2022 adopted a policy that allowed students to request a "gender support plan." According to Axios, this plan would outline a student’s preferred name and pronouns as well as which locker rooms or bathroom the student would use, which is a social, rather than a medical, transition. 

The student could choose whether the parents were informed, but the plan was not related to medical transition, which, for minors, requires the consent of parental guardians. Schools often don’t inform parents when students signal they are socially transitioning, The Washington Post reported.  

Foreign affairs

Ron DeSantis: "I'll be the first president elected since 1988 (who’s) actually served overseas in a war." 

This is accurate. DeSantis is the only military veteran among the 2024 presidential candidates, and would be the first U.S. president to have served overseas since President George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988. 

DeSantis earned his law degree from Harvard University and served in the U.S. Navy as a lawyer, also known as a Judge Advocate General, or JAG, officer. His military records show he enlisted in 2004 during his second year at Harvard and served from 2005 to 2010.

He was stationed in Iraq with SEAL Team 1 from 2007 to 2008 as a senior legal adviser to Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson, the commander of the Special Operations Task Force-West in Fallujah.

Vivek Ramaswamy: "The reality is just because (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is an evil dictator does not mean that Ukraine is good. This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties."

Ramaswamy disagreed with some of his opponents about aid to Ukraine, arguing the United States should limit its support for the country in its fight against Russia.

His point about political parties is accurate, but it needs context.

Ukraine banned 11 pro-Russian parties — the largest of which occupied 44 out of 450 seats in parliament, according to Radio Free Europe. The party’s leader, Viktor Medvedchuk, is aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter, Radio Free Europe reported.

Grace Abels, Marta Campabadal Graus, Louis Jacobson, Samantha Putterman, Aaron Sharockman and Amy Sherman contributed to this report. 

We last updated this story Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. ET.

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Fact-check: Republican candidates spar on immigration, crime, economy in second debate