The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The debate over immigration remains dependent on hyperbole more than reality

Migrants from Peru and Guatemala seeking U.S. asylum turn themselves in to a Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Ariz., on Jan. 21. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) offered a good distillation of one particular strain of anti-immigration rhetoric in a tweet earlier this week. It was a broadly misleading tweet, certainly, but one that offers insight into how numbers related to the border are abused to paint a picture of a massive influx of migrants into the United States.

It’s a picture that is then used to promote a deeply toxic view of immigration, as “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade articulated Thursday morning.

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This was Jordan’s tweet.

That total is, in fact, larger than the population of those Ohio cities. On a month-by-month basis, this is what the number of detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border looked like.

What should have immediately struck you in Jordan’s tweet, though, is the fact that he is describing apprehensions, not migrants entering the country and then displacing all those tremulous Ohioans. It’s like those tweets where Republicans wring their hands about the scale of illegal drugs seized at the border, as though that’s equivalent to (or even somehow worse than) not stopping those drugs.

But even the top-line number presented by Jordan obscures the reality of what’s happening at the border.

For example, more than 360,000 of those stopped at the border had been caught before. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began releasing specific monthly data on this metric because it recognized that the overall number of apprehensions was presenting an impression that more unique individuals were being stopped than was the case. More than a quarter of the apprehensions in the last seven months of the year were of people who had been stopped previously.

They were stopped again, obviously, because they had been removed from the country and were trying once more to come in. And that brings us to another way in which Jordan’s number is misleading: Most of those stopped at the border were slated for rapid removal from the country.

This is perhaps one of President Biden’s most controversial policies with his base. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration used public health regulations to rationalize quickly removing migrants from the country. Despite Biden’s pledge to stop that practice, it has continued, almost certainly because it allows for precisely the sort of differentiation I’m offering here: It is reducing the number of people who remain in the country. That Biden has continued this policy has prompted several resignations from his administration.

The result is that 56 percent of those stopped at the border in 2021 were removed under what are known as Title 42 provisions. Only 900,000 were apprehended and processed under normal guidelines for managing migration.

It’s important to note two things about that number. It does not mean that 900,000 people were caught illegally trying to sneak into the country undetected. Often, migrants turn themselves in to law enforcement officials to seek asylum in the United States, triggering a separate legal process under which they are legally entitled to remain in the country. A surge in asylum claims as a mechanism to remain in the United States has crushed the country’s immigration courts — but those remaining in the country while they await adjudication of their claims are not here without authorization.

CBP releases separate data on how those it has apprehended are handled. In some cases, detainees are granted humanitarian release, allowing them to travel within the United States. This is often the outcome for parents traveling with children. In most cases last year, though, the border-crossers were held in detention or transferred to other law enforcement agencies.

Data for September isn’t available, but the total number of people granted humanitarian release was just over 300,000 in the other 11 months of the year — about as many people as live in Cincinnati, to narrow Jordan’s comparison. But they aren’t all traveling to the same place, of course, instead going to cities and towns throughout the country to join family or communities of people from the same point of origin.

If you are broadly opposed to immigration, this will serve as little consolation. But it is nonetheless the case that Jordan’s top-line number of 1.9 million is far higher than the number of individuals that CBP reports are actually released into the interior. The inflation of that number, as by Jordan, helps power the misleading narrative that American cities — and Americans broadly — are being overwhelmed.

So we get rhetoric like Kilmeade’s on Thursday morning.

“What you’re doing is you’re poisoning these cities, and these towns, and these schools, with people that don’t belong there, that are circumventing the immigration process, that don’t speak English,” Kilmeade said. “You’re hurting the families in that community.” He claimed that class sizes were doubling, with tax dollars needed to instruct non-English speakers. And he told viewers that they should confront immigrants arriving in their towns after being released from custody, promising them that any footage of the immigrants’ arrival could be rewarded with broadcast on his network. America’s Least Welcoming Home Videos.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is a potent force in media and politics. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is facing pushback after he launched a program targeting migrants for state-level sanctions. Abbott is up for reelection in November and is eager to be seen as tough on immigration, even as he faces a number of lawsuits centered on his efforts. He and other officials also blamed last summer’s surge in coronavirus cases on migrants crossing the border, despite the obvious evidence against this claim. Blaming immigrants is often the easy path forward.

Such targeting of immigrants and rhetoric about the scale of migration often lead to wild exaggeration or misrepresentation. Those exaggerations are then folded into anti-immigrant rhetoric like that offered by Kilmeade.

About the time he was disparaging those migrants on “Fox & Friends,” incidentally, Fox Nation, the streaming network that sits alongside Fox News, was promoting a new series hosted by Kilmeade.

Millions of immigrants? Clearly Kilmeade is promoting a threat that demands a response.