The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s border catch-22, as seen in one dramatically incorrect tweet

Unaccompanied migrant children from Central and South America wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande into Roma, Tex., on April 9, 2022. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

This tweet is misleading in more ways than you might immediately recognize.

The most immediate error, of course, is that of magnitude. The tweet by Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) claims that 1 billion people were stopped at the border in the past six months, about 1 in 7 living humans and three times the population of the United States.

That would be about 64 people attempting to cross the border every second, an influx that, beyond the challenge of manifesting so many people at the border in the first place, probably would not escape the immediate notice of news organizations, to say nothing of the challenge of detaining so many people. If you have a spare bedroom, you probably would have had a knock at the door from someone from Customs and Border Protection. No wonder she eventually deleted the message.

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But that brings us to the second, more subtle way in which Lesko’s tweet is misleading.

It is true that there have been more than a million “encounters” (to use CBP’s nomenclature) at the border over the past six months; 1,060,954 to be precise, although the encounter numbers are often later revised.

You can see below that this is largely a function of the number in March. For the past 13 months, however, the monthly figure has consistently been higher than 150,000 — more than the peak in early 2019 that President Donald Trump used as a constant talking point about the need for a border wall.

That rhetoric from Trump, like the tweet from Lesko, blurs a few things together. An “encounter,” after all, represents someone being stopped at the border, not someone gliding into the country without being stopped. Acknowledging the uncomfortable parallel I’m drawing, this argument is a bit like the regular hand-wringing from Republican officials about the amount of narcotics stopped at the border, as though stopping more importation was the negative factor.

In addition to being fraught, that analogy also breaks down because the disposition of border encounters is different. Many of those stopped at the border are turning themselves in to seek asylum, a legal process that can begin only when someone is on American soil. Some are eventually released within the United States to await adjudication of their requests to live legally in this country. Others are held in detention to await the finalization of that process, and others still are detained on criminal charges. Some, of course, are slated for deportation.

This is the blurring. What’s the objection that Lesko is raising? To the strain on the CBP? To the strain on detention facilities? To the number of people being released? To all of it? It’s not clear. And that’s partly intentional: By simply introducing the number as problematic (even at a more accurate scale) you can simply appeal to concerns about immigration writ large without specifying what, exactly, you’re concerned about.

It’s important to understand the specific way in which encounters have been handled, particularly over the past two years. When the pandemic emerged, the Trump administration implemented a policy ostensibly rooted in public health concerns to quickly remove migrants from the country. These are called “Title 42” removals, after the section of the legal code being deployed as rationale. Very few people really think that the Trump administration’s concern was that migrants would worsen the pandemic; instead, it seems fair to assume that the virus was used as an excuse to do what the administration wanted to do anyway.

The result, though, is that most of those “encounters” over the past two years resulted in migrants being slated for removal or actually removed — which is to say, deported — from the United States. Of the 1 million plus migrants stopped over the past six months, about 550,000 (nearly all single adults) were Title 42 encounters.

The Biden administration has faced heavy pressure to end the Title 42 policy, given that it effectively amounts to little more than a tool for quickly reducing the number of migrants in the United States. Last month, we learned that the administration would end the policy in May, although it now seems that Biden’s team may be getting cold feet.

From a cynical political perspective, it’s not clear that the removal process was providing much benefit to Biden anyway, as I wrote last month. Republicans were still touting the total number of encounters to point to a crisis at the border, leveraging the blurriness of what happened next. What’s more, the removal process itself increased the number of people who were being stopped more than once a month, inflating the total. In the last six months of 2021, a quarter of apprehensions were of the same person more than once, a much larger percentage than before the pandemic.

Even those other encounters don’t mean that there are millions (or billions) of migrants in the United States. You can see the CBP’s data for yourself. Of the 478,000 encounters that were not dealt with under Title 42, only about 175,000 of those migrants were released into the country on humanitarian grounds. Many of those 175,000 were children, either with parents or unaccompanied. About 15,000 of those apprehended voluntarily returned to Mexico.

Again, the concern Lesko is expressing isn’t articulated. Is it that resources are strained — part of the actual concern on Biden’s team about ending Title 42? Is it that the United States is seeing a surge in migrants arriving and staying? Or is she simply trying to score political points on social media by typing a big figure with a lot — too many, in fact — numbers?

This is the bind for Biden. As long as the number of people arriving at the border continues to be in the hundreds of thousands, it doesn’t matter politically what happens next. It matters enormously for the migrants, of course, but we should by now have been disabused of the idea that the disposition of the actual people contributing to the numbers has a significant influence on the political conversation.