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Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde May 20, 2020

Fact-checking Donald Trump’s claim of ‘best numbers’ at the border

If Your Time is short

  • Year-to-date apprehension numbers are the lowest the Trump administration has seen so far, but are higher than in some past administrations. In terms of monthly data, it is not the lowest the Trump administration has seen.

  • Experts said the numbers are down because the global pandemic that has caused lockdowns in foreign countries and increased the public-health risk of migrating to the United States.

Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo asked President Donald Trump if he’d use the "same playbook" to get the United States economy back on track after disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump answered that he’s always being an "America First" person and pointed to his administration’s work on Southwest border enforcement as evidence.

"Strong borders. Our border is very strong," Trump said during a Fox Business interview May 14. "We have some of the best numbers we've ever had. Southern border, the best numbers we've ever had."

Trump generally uses that language to refer to a low number of apprehensions at the Southwest border. A few days later, in a May 19 speech, he referred to the numbers being "the lowest numbers we’ve ever had of people coming in and we’re moving them out as soon as they come in." We asked the White House for more details but did not hear back.

PolitiFact reviewed data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and found that the number of apprehensions is relatively low, but not the lowest ever.

Border experts also told us that U.S. policies alone are not the cause of the drop, and that people in foreign countries are also likely taking into consideration the public-health risk of emigrating during a pandemic.

Cristobal Ramón, a senior policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Project, said two coordinated trends have decreased the number of people arriving at the Southwest border: policies by the Trump administration and lockdowns in foreing countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, restricting the movement of people during the pandemic.

"The administration doesn’t seem to recognize that the numbers we are seeing are flukes in history," Ramón said. "This is happening in a very unique context that I think you are not going to fully account for by policies alone."

Immigration experts have told us that people interpret apprehension numbers differently: some might consider high apprehension numbers an indication of effective border enforcement; others might say low apprehension numbers show that U.S. policies are working to deter illegal immigration in the first place. The Trump administration views low apprehension numbers as a sign that the border is under control.

Southwest border enforcement

Before the pandemic, a cooperative agreement between the United States and Guatemala and the Migrant Protection Protocols program contributed to a decline of border arrivals.

The Trump administration in late March invoked Title 42, a section of federal law that allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to deny entry to immigrants coming from a country with an outbreak of an infectious disease. Using that law, the administration has been quickly expelling immigrants who arrive at the border, and that is also decreasing the number of people showing up at the border, Ramón said.

It’s unclear if Trump’s claim of "some of the best numbers we've ever had" was based on a comparison of month-to-month or fiscal years. We also don’t know which years or months his claim is based on.

So far this fiscal year, there have been around 207,000 Southwest border apprehensions, according to CBP data. However, that includes March and April expulsions done under the HHS directive, and apprehensions under CBP’s immigration authority.

More detailed CBP data shows that of nearly 16,000 Border Patrol enforcement actions in April, about 1,500 were apprehensions under CBP’s immigration authority. The rest were expulsions under Title 42. In March, most of the Border Patrol’s actions were apprehensions, not expulsions.

We asked CBP how it determined whether immigrants found in between ports of entry are sent back to their country based on the health department directive or based on CBP’s immigration authority. The agency said that if it made that information public it "would be exploited by human smugglers."

Year-to-date apprehensions (October 2019 through April 2020) are the lowest they've been compared with same time frames in past years of the Trump administration. Still, nationwide, apprehensions were much lower in the 1960s and earlier years.

The number of people encountered by Border Patrol during Trump’s first full months in office in 2017, February to April, was lower than the number encountered from February to April 2020.

Camila Townsend, a Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, with expertise in U.S.-Mexico border issues, said it is likely that potential immigrants are aware "that they have no chance of an asylum hearing" during this time, and that if they manage to cross illegally, there’s "almost no chance of getting a job in a world where most businesses are shuttered."

"They are likely aware that in order to get here and begin to face such problems, they would first have to pass through Central American countries and parts of Mexico with stay-at-home orders, curfews, and few cars or trucks on the road" to hitchhike with, Townsend said via email.

Our ruling

Trump said, "We have some of the best numbers we've ever had. Southern border, the best numbers we've ever had."

Year-to-date apprehension numbers are the lowest the Trump administration has seen so far, but they are not the lowest compared with past administrations. In terms of monthly data, it is not the lowest the Trump administration has seen.

Despite the low numbers, experts said it’s important to keep in mind the context: a global pandemic that has caused lockdowns in foreign countries and increased the public health risk of emigrating to the United States.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

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Fact-checking Donald Trump’s claim of ‘best numbers’ at the border

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