Mayorkas used the statement to blame the Trump administration for some of the Biden administration’s current immigration challenges. And Mayorkas made a notable projection, saying that “we are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
We looked into six of Mayorkas’ claims. Here is a fact-check breakdown.
Covid-19 protections under Trump
Mayorkas wrote that, under the Trump administration, “there were no plans to protect our front-line personnel against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Facts First: “No plans” is not true. It’s clear that the department did take steps during the Trump presidency to protect front-line border employees from Covid-19.
In April 2020, US Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a statement listing various ways it was trying to keep staff safe from the virus, such as new cleaning guidelines, increased telework, and the use of personal protective equipment.
In September 2020, the inspector general for the department reported that ports of entry and Border Patrol stations said in April and early May they had taken multiple steps to limit the spread of Covid-19 – including making masks available, increasing the frequency of cleaning, conducting work outdoors when possible, conducting staff briefings by phone, asking people to remain in their vehicles during secondary border processing, and conducting risk assessments of detained people to try to determine their potential exposure to the virus. The inspector general reported that “facilities reported concerns with their inability to practice social distancing and the risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to the close-contact nature of their work,” but that “the majority of facilities stated they were prepared to address COVID-19.”
Marsha Espinosa, a department spokeswoman, told CNN on Tuesday that Mayorkas was “referring to DHS as a whole,” not just Border Patrol facilities, when he made the claim about the absence of plans. But even if some parts of the department were, hypothetically, deficient in their planning, it’s not true that there were “no plans” period.
Mayorkas could have instead made a subjective argument that the Trump administration’s protection efforts were inadequate. The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands of Customs and Border Protection employees, called in the spring and summer of 2020 for various safety improvements, including more frequent testing, contact tracing, more frequent cleaning, and better protective equipment. In 2021, the union criticized the department’s slow early efforts to get employees vaccinated.
As of Sunday, Customs and Border Protection reported 8,131 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 28 deaths among its 60,000-plus employees.
Migration numbers in historical context
Mayorkas wrote, “We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
Facts First: This might well be accurate – though we should be cautious about “pace”-based projections given that changes in political, economic and even weather conditions can cause immigration trendlines to shift mid-year. But experts say Mayorkas left out some important context about how current figures differ from past figures.
First, let’s look at the numbers. In the first five months of the 2021 fiscal year, through February, Customs and Border Protection reported 396,958 “encounters” with migrants on the southwest land border. Through February, then, this fiscal year has had a slightly lower per-month average than the full 2019 fiscal year. But given that the number of encounters has increased each and every month of the 2021 fiscal year, and given that the number spiked from 78,442 in January to 100,441 in February, a five-month average doesn’t fully represent the present situation. Mayorkas has access to internal data CNN does not have, including in-progress March figures, and his projection appears reasonable.
Nonetheless, he left out some pertinent facts. Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute think tank, said that because of the pandemic-era “Title 42” policy of swiftly expelling people who have crossed the border without authorization, adopted under former President Donald Trump and largely preserved so far by Biden, “recidivism is higher than it has been in years – it is easier than ever for rejected migrants to turn around and try again. That high rate of recidivism is making the numbers appear higher than they actually are.”
“Unfortunately, the administration has not updated the recidivism rate in a while, so we don’t know how artificially high the ‘encounters’ numbers are,” Pierce said. (A Customs and Border Protection official confirmed to reporters during a briefing on March 10 that there are “higher than usual recidivism rates as a result of Covid protocols.”)
Erica Schommer, clinical professor of law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said comparing today’s raw numbers to numbers 20 years ago “may be misleading” because, while people back then tended to be crossing the border trying not to be spotted by authorities, today “many children and families and even some single adults Border Patrol is apprehending are essentially turning themselves in” to begin the asylum-claim process.
Similarly, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration advocacy organization, said “there’s a lot of nuance missing” from the claim by Mayorkas. He said that since Border Patrol agents are evaded by a far smaller percentage of migrants today than 20 years ago, the actual total number of migrants crossing the border today would be “MUCH lower” than the total 20 years ago, even if the recorded number of “encounters,” which doesn’t include successful evasions, did end up hitting the same heights.
When the current increase began
Mayorkas sought to make clear that the increase in migration traffic at the southwest border did not start under the Biden administration. He wrote, “Since April 2020, the number of encounters at the southwest border has been steadily increasing.”
Facts First: This is true. Customs and Border Protection statistics show that the number of “encounters” at the southwest land border has increased every month since April 2020, when the number fell to 17,106 amid the pandemic. The number was 74,018 in December, Trump’s last full month in office, and 100,441 in February. It had last been above 100,000 in a month during the 2019 fiscal year. You can look at the government’s data and charts here.
The burden on the Border Patrol
Mayorkas wrote, “The expulsion of single adults does not pose an operational challenge for the Border Patrol because of the speed and minimal processing burden of their expulsion.”
Facts First: What constitutes an “operational challenge” is a matter of opinion, but Mayorkas’ opinion is disputed. Mark Morgan, Border Patrol chief under President Barack Obama who then served under Trump as acting leader of Customs and Border Protection and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it’s “basic math” that the current number of single adults poses an operational challenge. “One wonders if Mayorkas ran this line by the men and women of the Border Patrol before saying it publicly, because if he had, he would’ve been embarrassed to make such a claim,” Morgan wrote in an article Tuesday on the website of the conservative Heritage Foundation, where he is now a visiting fellow.
Reichlin-Melnick, a critic of both the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy and of Morgan himself, said he also disputes Mayorkas’ claim. He said that even though the rapid expulsions of single adults under Title 42 take less time than normal arrests, “the fact is that since April 2020 they’ve had to spend more and more time arresting more and more single adults, which distracts from other aspects of processing at the border.”
Expulsion of migrant families
Mayorkas wrote, “We are expelling most single adults and families.”
Facts First: This was true in February if you lumped together single adults and people traveling as part of a family unit into one big statistical group. It was not true, though, for family migrants on their own.
Published Customs and Border Protection data shows that, in February, 7,915 migrants who were part of a “family unit” on the southwest border were expelled under the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy – about 41% of the 19,246 family-unit members in “encounters” that month.
If you combine single adults with people who were part of a family unit, Mayorkas’ claim is clearly accurate. Of the 90,844 single adults and family-unit members encountered in February, 72,023 of them, about 79%, were expelled under Title 42.
Trump and the asylum system
Mayorkas wrote, “The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers.”
Facts First: A literal reader could take issue with the phrase “completely dismantled” – an asylum system still existed under Trump, of course – but we say Mayorkas’ claim is fair enough, and “the system was gutted” is a reasonable assessment. Trump made dramatic, unprecedented changes to the asylum system, both to prevent asylum seekers from staying in the US while their claims worked their way through the legal process and to make it more difficult for asylum claims to succeed.
Reichlin-Melnick and Schommer told CNN that they agreed with Mayorkas’ claim.
Mayorkas’ claim about children and traffickers is also factually fair, though we won’t judge how “cruel” the Trump administration was or wasn’t.
Under Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy, the Trump administration turned away thousands of unaccompanied children who had crossed the Mexican border. (The Biden administration has so far retained most of the Trump-era Title 42 policy but has exempted unaccompanied children from the expulsions.) Also, human rights advocates and journalists have reported that traffickers and other criminals victimized asylum seekers, including children, who were sent away from the US under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which took effect in 2019.
We aren’t sure what Mayorkas was referring to when he wrote “facilities were closed” under Trump. The department did not respond to our request for clarification.