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In this Monday, March 1, 2021 photo, a boy sits near where tents used by migrants seeking asylum in the United States line an entrance to the border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP) In this Monday, March 1, 2021 photo, a boy sits near where tents used by migrants seeking asylum in the United States line an entrance to the border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP)

In this Monday, March 1, 2021 photo, a boy sits near where tents used by migrants seeking asylum in the United States line an entrance to the border crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde March 17, 2021

Did the increase of children arriving at the border start under Trump or Biden?

If Your Time is short

  • Escobar is correct that the increase started before the Biden presidency and dates back almost a year. 

  • Still, there was a sharp increase in arrivals from January to February.

  • Biden’s election and misleading messaging from smugglers may have influenced some people to migrate to the U.S. More data in coming months will help better gauge the impact his election and policies have on migration.

The rising numbers of children arriving alone at the southern border pose "an enormous challenge," but President Joe Biden’s election isn’t what triggered the surge, said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.

What’s happening at the border is "the consequence of four years of dismantling every system in place to address this with humanity and compassion," Escobar told Jake Tapper, co-host of CNN’s State of the Union on March 14.

She added: "I do want to also point out, Jake, that we began seeing the increase in unaccompanied minors going back to last April 2020. This is not something that happened as a result of Joe Biden becoming president. We saw the increases dating back almost a year. And this was during the Trump administration."

Is Escobar right that the rise started under the Trump administration? Yes, the increase did start about a year ago. At this point though, there’s not enough data to measure to what extent Biden’s election has influenced migration. Border officials publish migration data by month, not day. So far, February is the only full month Biden has been in office.

Arrivals started increasing under Trump, data show

Escobar is correct that arrivals at the southern border began increasing almost a year ago, before Biden was elected president. But the arrival of unaccompanied children increased sharply since January.

Border Patrol’s "encounters" count includes people who are taken into the custody of agents between ports of entry and people who are quickly expelled from trying to enter the country under a public health rule launched in March 2020.

Data shows that Border Patrol encounters went down in April 2020 compared with March 2020, but picked up in May 2020. The numbers have generally been increasing since then, for all migrants and for unaccompanied minors. (There was a slight decrease from October to November in the encounters of unaccompanied children.)

Border Patrol data tracks events, not people. If a person tries to cross the border three times in a one month and is expelled each time, Border Patrol records three expulsions, for instance.

Factors fueling migration

About three weeks into Biden’s administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released January data which showed a continued increase in attempted monthly border crossings. "The uptick seems to be occurring in a small fraction of locations across the southwest border, which is consistent with trends in years past," said Troy Miller, a CBP senior official performing the duties of the commissioner.

The agency tied the increase to several factors, including crime and instability in migrants’ home countries and "inaccurate perceptions" of changes in immigration and border policies.

Smugglers have taken advantage of Biden’s election, said David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"Some migrants do believe that Biden will be more favorable to them, that's largely based on the smugglers' misinformation and propaganda and a very small slice of truth," Bier said.

But Bier maintained that if Donald Trump had won re-election, these smugglers would have changed their sales pitch, promoting tunnels and other ways to get into the United States.

White House officials have acknowledged that despite their message that the border is closed, smugglers are telling people a different story.

"When we talk about the border not being open and the ways in which we’re trying to dissuade people from making that dangerous journeys, the smugglers are conveying exactly the opposite to people," said Roberta S. Jacobson, who oversees border issues in the Biden administration, March 10.

The arrival of unaccompanied children is something that seems to ebb and flow, regardless of who is president, said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Payan said it’s too early to tell if Biden’s policies are what’s driving an increase in recent arrivals, because other factors that prompt migration still exist. More people tend to come in the spring and the summer. And high poverty and crime in Central America — factors that push people out of their countries — have not changed, he said.

Some Trump policies spurred the arrival of unaccompanied children, Bier said.

Under the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, families who asked for asylum in the United States were sent to Mexico to wait there as their cases moved through the system. It can take months or years for U.S. authorities to process asylum claims, so many migrants set up makeshift tents in border towns to wait.

Unaccompanied children were generally not turned away under the program. So when families realized they could "face months or years of homelessness in very dangerous cities in Mexico, many parents and their kids decided to separate," Bier wrote in a blog post.

Also, when the Trump administration began expelling migrants under the public health rule, it applied to single travelers, unaccompanied children and families. But a federal judge in November ordered the Trump administration to stop expelling unaccompanied children.

As a result of that court ruling, Bier said, many parents who were once expelled along with their children decided to send their kids back to the United States alone so they'd be let in.

But Biden is the one setting policy now "and his policies are partly contributing to what's happening at the border," Bier said.

For example, an appeals court in January said that the federal government could resume expelling unaccompanied children. Yet, the Biden administration continues to accept unaccompanied children, Bier said.

Biden’s administration also has started letting in asylum seekers who were waiting in Mexico and stopped enrolling people in the Remain in Mexico program.

"There is a risk that more migrants, especially those faced with the harshest push factors, may think that there is a greater chance to get into the U.S. now that asylum seekers are being processed inside the U.S.," Payan said.

Our ruling

Escobar said of unaccompanied minors at the southern border, "We saw the increases dating back almost a year."

It is true that the rise started in spring 2020 during the Trump administration. But it’s also worth noting that there was a sharp increase this year from January to February.

Biden’s election and misleading messaging from smugglers may have influenced some people to migrate to the U.S. More data in coming months will help better gauge the impact his election and policies have on migration.

Escobar’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

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More by Miriam Valverde

Did the increase of children arriving at the border start under Trump or Biden?

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