Both Republicans and Democrats have reasons to misstate President Biden’s border policies. At a hearing yesterday, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas attempted to make his policies appear more compassionate than they are, and Republicans attempted to make the Trump administration seem more draconian than it was. Neither are presenting a fair reading of the facts.
In March, the Trump White House forced the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to order DHS to expel border crossers, overriding the objections of the CDC’s public health experts. This authority purportedly based under Title 42 of the U.S. Code allows the DHS to remove a person from the United States without any due process, hearing, or screening for fear of return. It was a way to end asylum for most immigrants. In February, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled 91 percent of single adult border crossers immediately without due process, screening for fear of return, or any kind of hearing.
Republicans still claim that the new administration is not using this authority enough, particularly against families and unaccompanied children from outside of Mexico, compared to the last, spurring the current crisis. Yet the share of expulsions of these two groups was falling before Trump left office. The share of non‐Mexican families and unaccompanied children expelled dropped from 67 percent in October to 52 percent in November to 39 percent in December before hitting 37 percent in January with Trump leaving office. While the share of expulsions fell further under Biden, it was not for a lack of effort: the actual absolute number of expulsions of these groups doubled. Instead, the drop reflected a continuation of an existing trend.
It’s not just Republicans misstating things. Secretary Mayorkas claimed that “the prior administration was expelling [unaccompanied non‐Mexican children]…. We ended that practice.” Republicans claimed this was causing the surge in migrant children. But Mayorkas misstates what happened.
The Trump DHS had already ended the practice of deporting unaccompanied children in late November shortly after a court ruled that the expulsion policy was illegal. There were zero expulsions of unaccompanied non‐Mexican children in December and January 2021. An appeals court allowed expulsions to continue in late January, and there were two in February 2021. It is true that Biden chose to continue the non‐expulsion policy after the appeals court lifted the lower court’s order, but by mispresenting the timeline, Mayorkas makes it seem like the increase is in response to a policy change when it was not. Moreover, even before the broad decision in November, DHS expelled only about a third of non‐Mexican unaccompanied children.
Meanwhile, Republicans repeatedly attacked the administration for releasing migrant families at the border. But they fail to explain the reason: Mexico is refusing to accept many families with young children back because their homeless shelters are above capacity. A Mexican law passed in November requires children not be detained by immigration authorities and referred to its shelter system. As Figure 2 shows, expulsions of non‐Mexicans fell in November and December 2020, and the share of families expelled fell from 89 percent in October to 83 percent in November to 75 percent in December to 61 percent in January before dropping to 40 percent in February, the first full month under Biden. Yet during February, the absolute number of non‐Mexican families expelled were almost double the number under Trump.
The reason to focus on non‐Mexicans is that they are 87 percent of all those not expelled. Even though Mexican unaccompanied children are not being expelled, their removals are almost always fast‐tracked, while Central American unaccompanied children are released. It appears that Mexico initially had started refusing to accept back immigrants from countries outside of the Northern Triangle and Mexico in November and December. It then started to reject some crossers from the Northern Triangle in January and then it may have even started refusing some Mexican families in February. But these changes started under Trump and continued Trump policies. There was no fundamental shift.