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Biden’s bungled claims about the Hispanic population

(Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

“The vast majority of the people, the 11 million undocumented, they’re not Hispanics. They’re people who came on a visa, [were] able to buy a ticket to get on a plane and didn’t go home. They didn’t come across the Rio Grande and swim.”

— President Biden, in a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Feb. 16

“As you know, the fastest-growing population in the United States is Hispanic. And 60 percent of the Hispanic population is Mexican American. They’re an integral part of our history.”

— Biden, in remarks before a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, March 1

Biden, a longtime champion of policies that would give citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, bungled both of these elementary claims.

The president said most undocumented migrants in the United States are not Hispanic, when in fact they are. Weeks later, Biden said Hispanics are the fastest-growing population group, but census data shows they have taken second place to Asian Americans in recent decades.

Let’s break down each statement.

The Facts

The number of U.S. immigrants, nearly 45 million in 2018, has increased fourfold since 1965, when the United States replaced nationality-based migration quotas with an application-based system based on work or family ties.

Biden has proposed legislation that would grant a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented residents, though any effort at overhauling U.S. immigration laws would be going uphill in a divided Congress narrowly controlled by Democrats.

“The vast majority of the people, the 11 million undocumented, they’re not Hispanics.”

Because of the uncertain nature of counting the undocumented population, no definitive estimates exist of how many reside in the United States or their racial or ethnic breakdown.

The widely accepted ballpark is between 10 million and 14 million. None of the available estimates supports Biden’s claim, and the best research indicates his statement is flat-out false because Hispanics predominate among the undocumented population. The White House did not respond to a question on this point.

Using census data, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimated an undocumented population of nearly 11 million as of 2018. Of those, 75 percent hailed from Mexico or Central or South America, the group said.

The Pew Research Center estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States as of 2017, a decline from a 2007 high point of 12.2 million. At 10.5 million, undocumented migrants would represent 23 percent of all immigrants and 3.2 percent of the entire U.S. population in 2017, Pew said.

“The decline in the unauthorized immigrant population is due largely to a fall in the number from Mexico — the single largest group of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.,” according to Pew. “Between 2007 and 2017, this group decreased by 2 million. Meanwhile, there was a rise in the number from Central America and Asia.”

“They’re people who came on a visa, [were] able to buy a ticket to get on a plane and didn’t go home. They didn’t come across the Rio Grande and swim.”

Biden said most undocumented migrants are people who enter the United States legally and then overstay their visas, a phenomenon involving air travelers from Asia or Europe, rather than Spanish-speaking migrants trekking to the border.

He’s not totally off base.

Government statistics and independent studies show that in recent years, visa overstays have in fact outpaced migrations from unauthorized border-crossings. In fiscal 2017, the Department of Homeland Security reported 606,926 suspected in-country overstays, or twice the number of southern border apprehensions. In fiscal 2016, U.S. officials reported 408,870 southern border apprehensions and 544,676 suspected in-country overstays. The Center for Migration Studies of New York, a think tank, found in a recent study that visa overstays “significantly exceeded” border-crossing migrations for the seventh straight year in 2017.

The issue here is that Biden was speaking about the entire undocumented population accumulated over time. He didn’t limit his comments to the migration dynamics seen in recent years. When looking comprehensively across decades, border-crossings are still the top driver of undocumented migration, albeit by a hair.

“Demographers estimate that more recent additions to the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population have been chiefly of people who came legally and then overstayed a visa,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, spokesperson for the Migration Policy Institute. “But if you look at the overall unauthorized population, we believe that slightly more than half crossed a border illegally to get here. This is because the overall unauthorized population is a long settled one — we estimate that 60 percent have been in the U.S. a decade or more — as well as the fact that in earlier periods illegal entries outpaced visa overstays.”

“As you know, the fastest-growing population in the United States is Hispanic.”

Wrong again. Hispanics have been the second-fastest-growing demographic group, after Asian Americans, since around 2010, according to census figures. The two groups had been growing at similar rates since 2000.

The Asian American population grew by 28.7 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to census data, while the Hispanic population came in second place, at 20 percent growth.

“Of those [migrants] who arrived before 2000, most came from Latin American countries, followed by Asian countries,” the U.S. Census Bureau said in a recent report predicting trends in population growth. “Since 2010, that trend has reversed with Asia replacing Latin America as the largest sending region of migrants to the United States.”

Looking at a longer period, Pew found: “The U.S. Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015 (from 11.9 million to 20.4 million), the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group. By comparison, the population of the second-fastest growing group, Hispanics, increased 60% during the same period.”

A White House spokesperson told us the president “meant to say fastest-growing in our schools,” but Biden’s remarks, in a virtual meeting with the Mexican president, did not refer to education. The spokesperson sent us figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, showing that for the period from 1995 through 2020, Asian American and Pacific Islanders were projected to have gone from 4 percent of enrollees in public elementary and secondary schools to 5 percent, while Hispanic Americans were projected to have gone from 14 percent to 27 percent, the fastest growth of any group.

Migration from Asian countries is the biggest driver of Asian Americans’ population growth; about two-thirds of Asian Americans were foreign-born in 2018, census data shows.

Census Bureau researchers predicted that people of two or more races would be the fastest-growing group over the next four decades, rising “some 200 percent.”

“The next fastest is the Asian population, which is projected to double, followed by Hispanics whose population will nearly double within the next 4 decades,” the report said. “In contrast, the only group projected to shrink is the non-Hispanic White population. Between 2016 and 2060, the non-Hispanic White population is expected to contract by about 19 million people, from 198 million to 179 million, even as the total U.S. population grows. The decline is driven largely by falling birth rates and a rising number of deaths over time as the non-Hispanic White population ages.”

For the moment, Asians make up about one-quarter of the total immigrant population, whereas Mexicans and Latinos together represent about half of all immigrants in the United States.

The Pinocchio Test

Biden messed up both claims, though it’s interesting to note that the falsities veered off in different directions. One minimized the share of Hispanics among the undocumented population, the other inflated Hispanics’ rate of growth.

Biden said the “vast majority” of the 11 million U.S. undocumented residents were not Hispanic. But reliable estimates show the vast majority, about 75 percent, are in fact Hispanic.

Biden erroneously said Hispanics were the fastest-growing population group. They have been running in second place to Asian Americans since about 2010, and are projected to keep running behind Asians through 2060 at least.

The White House says Biden misspoke and meant to reference education enrollment statistics, not population growth, but we didn’t get an explanation for the other error.

Some basic fact-checking would have saved the president from egg on his face, but instead he gets Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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