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U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, joined CNN host Jake Tapper on March 14 to defend President Joe Biden’s response to the influx of unaccompanied children at the southern border and shift blame to the Trump administration.
The number of unaccompanied children encountered by Border Patrol increased sharply earlier this year, from 5,858 in January to 9,457 in February — a 61% increase, according to federal data. It’s the largest one month percentage increase since U.S. Customs and Border Protection began reporting the data in 2010.
"Is this a crisis?" Tapper asked Escobar.
"There is no doubt, Jake, that what we're seeing today is an enormous challenge," Escobar replied, adding that the uptick is a consequence of the Trump administration’s immigration policies that the Biden administration is "is working day and night" to amend.
"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," Escobar said. "We saw the increases dating back almost a year. And this was during the Trump administration."
The growing number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has become a partisan issue — Democrats blaming the uptick on Trump policies while Republicans blame it on changes the Biden administration has implemented.
During a March 21 interview on ABC News, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made comments similar to Escobar’s.
"Why is it especially challenging and difficult now? Because the entire system under United States law that has been in place throughout administrations of both parties was dismantled in its entirety by the Trump administration," Mayorkas said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, on the other hand, has blamed Biden’s "reckless open border policies" for the "surge in border crossings and cartel activity."
Migration patterns are complex and driven by numerous factors beyond changes in U.S. immigration policy, experts say. Is Escobar accurate in saying that increases in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border dates back to the Trump administration? And is she correct to say that these increases are not "a result of Joe Biden becoming president"?
The first part of Escobar’s statement is accurate — the number of unaccompanied minors encountered at the border has been increasing since April 2020. But this trend generally follows seasonal migration patterns. Migration numbers typically peak in the spring, usually in May, and decrease in the late summer.
But in 2020, the steady rise continued through the winter. According to Art Arthur, a former immigration judge and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that advocates for low immigration numbers, the steady rise in migrants through June, July and August is a "reversion to the mean."
Migration numbers across the board "fell off a cliff" in late March 2020 after the Trump administration activated Title 42, a provision of the 1944 Public Health and Safety Act that allows Border Patrol to expel any migrant for health and safety reasons, in this case to limit the spread of COVID-19 into the U.S. Since migration numbers bottomed out in April 2020 because of Title 42, the increases in migrant numbers throughout the remainder of 2020 returned monthly totals closer to average levels, Arthur said.
But that steady rise changed in February, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported the 61% uptick.
"We are seeing a reversion to the mean as it relates to unaccompanied children, but we saw a huge spike (in February 2021), and it’s a bigger spike than we’ve seen in any February ever," Arthur said.
That uptick occurred in the same month the Biden administration suspended Title 42 for unaccompanied children only, leaving it in place for all other categories of apprehended migrants, much to the chagrin of immigrant advocates.
In late January, after a federal appeals court ruled that the federal government could use Title 42 to expel unaccompanied minors, the White House announced that, unlike under the Trump administration, it would no longer apply Title 42 to children crossing the border alone.
The uptick in unaccompanied minors was recorded soon after that announcement. And as of March 23, there were 4,962 children in Customs and Border Patrol custody, well above the 30-day average of 3,243, according to NBC News.
"I can’t identify a single other factor that would point to that," Arthur said. "There’s no other variable other than that."
While Arthur highlights the White House’s policy change as a pull factor that was a primary driver behind February’s uptick, other experts underscore the push factors driving migrants out of their origin countries.
Migrants and migrant children travel from their origin countries — primarily Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — to the southern U.S. border for a multitude of reasons: worsened economic conditions due to COVID-19, cartel violence, corruption, natural disasters, agricultural diseases or droughts and, among others, the vagaries of U.S aid. These issues have factored into people’s migration decisions for decades.
One such push factor challenged the Central America region in November, when two category-4 hurricanes struck Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala within a two-week span. More than 200 people were killed, and millions were left in need of aid. The hurricanes exacerbated poverty and worsened access to clean water, giving an extra nudge to people considering northern migration.
"There are clearly push factors coming out of all those countries, regardless of what our policies are," said Ruth Wasem, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas. And it’s hard to say that pull factors created by liberalized U.S. immigration policies are stronger than the push factors driving migrants away from their origin countries, she said.
To Wasem, it’s no surprise border authorities are reporting high numbers of unaccompanied minors after four years of austere immigration policies under the Trump administration, which revamped the asylum-seeking processes in many ways that reduced the number of asylum seekers entering the U.S.
But the near closure of the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump doesn’t mean that migrants stopped packing their bags for the U.S.
"Trump basically shut down our immigration system and ended the laws on the books," Wasem said. "So there’s going to be a pent-up number of people that were waiting to come, or that were en route."
Wasem points to data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, a Mexican federal agency that processes refugee-status applications. Under Trump administration policies, asylum seekers were required to apply for asylum and be denied in one of the countries they passed through before seeking asylum in the U.S.
According to the data, monthly application numbers ebbed and flowed prior to Biden’s policy changes, showing that push factors in origin countries are a major driver behind migrant and unaccompanied children seeking to enter the U.S., Wasem said.
"Unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. is a result of what's going on in the countries they're coming from," she said. "How we respond to them changes from administration to administration. So when Escobar says the increase in unaccompanied children didn't happen as a result of Biden, I would say the ebb and flow isn't a result of who's in the White House."
That logic is echoed by other immigration researchers. Writing for the Washington Post, Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center Tom Wong and University of California at San Diego researchers say that the latest spike is attributable to a migration backlog.
"The current increase in apprehensions fits a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure," they wrote in their analysis of federal immigration data.
Long-term federal data suggests that "Title 42 expulsions delayed prospective migrants rather than deterred them — and they’re arriving now," they wrote.
There’s little doubt that migrants, and young children in particular, are being sent across the border inspired by Biden’s new immigration policies. But Wasem says that the hope Biden administration policies have inspired in migrants is hard to measure.
"Are people coming because the thought of Biden’s presidency gives them hope? That might be. But you can't measure that," she said.
One 9-year-old boy, for instance, traveled on foot for over a month through Mexico from Honduras aiming to connect with a family member in Florida. He was discovered by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley and told one ABC News reporter that his mother had sent him because she had heard that immigration authorities were turning families away, but not children.
Biden himself has acknowledged that while his administration has drawn the attention of migrant families, his more humanitarian policies can’t be the only factor compelling families to send their kids on the perilous northward journey. Many of the push factors cited by Wasem — like worsening poverty or gang violence — are also factoring into the calculus of migrants.
"That (9-year-old boy’s) mother did not sit around at the kitchen table and say, ‘I got a great idea. The way I’m going to make sure my son gets taken care of is I’m going to send him on a 10,000-mile journey through the desert into the U.S. because I know Joe Biden’s a nice guy and he’ll take care of him,’" Biden said. "What a desperate act to have to take. Circumstances must be horrible."
Escobar, whose office did not respond to requests for comment, said that increases in the number of unaccompanied minors reaching the southern U.S. border have been increasing since April 2020, when Trump was president.
It’s accurate to say that the number of children traveling alone to the border has been increasing since last April, but her statement downplays the fact that February saw a record increase in unaccompanied minors encountered by Border Patrol agents.
Escobar also said that these increases are not "a result of Joe Biden becoming president." Experts say that the pull factor created by Biden’s policy change to stop expulsions of the minors is one of several factors driving the uptick in unaccompanied minors. However, there’s dispute over whether this pull factor is a more primary driver than other push factors.
We rate this claim Half True.
CNN, Dem Congresswoman: 'Unacceptable' border surge is 'enormous challenge', March 14, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Land Border Encounters, March 10, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Border Patrol Total Unaccompanied Alien Children (0-17 Years Old) Apprehensions By Month, 2010-2019
Phone interview with Art Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, March 23, 2021
Bipartisan Policy Center, How the Trump Administration is Using COVID-19 to Continue its Border Deterrence Efforts, May 21, 2020
NBC News, Fact checking Biden on migrant surge during first news conference, March 25, 2021
Phone interview with Dr. Ruth Wasem, Professor of Public Policy Practice at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, March 23, 2021
PolitiFact, Fact-checking claim about Trump administration changes to the immigration system, March 24, 2021
National Immigration Forum, Mexico’s Asylum System Is Inadequate, Oct. 28, 2019
Refugee status recognition applications, Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, accessed March 24, 2021
ABC News, Scared and hungry: Young boys cross the border alone, March 25, 2021
CNN, Watch Biden’s first formal press conference, March 25, 2021
Washington Post, The migrant ‘surge’ at the U.S. southern border is actually a predictable pattern, March 25, 2021
Pew Research Center, Migrant apprehensions at U.S.-Mexico border are surging again, March 15, 2021
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