Is the Border More Secure Under Biden Than Trump? What We Know

Amid ongoing criticism about the influx of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the White House has defended President Joe Biden's immigration approach, saying that the administration is taking "unprecedented action" to keep things under control. But data suggests that the number of undocumented migrants continues to rise and reports hint that top officials at the Department of Homeland Security are growing frustrated with the White House's response.

On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew about 50 Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Several other Republican governors are also sending migrants north to blue states in an effort to get Democrats to ramp up pressure on the Biden administration to take action on the border.

As officials in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and now Martha's Vineyard scramble to find resources to help the migrants that have been caught in the crossfire of political drama, the White House has continued to defend Biden's immigration policies, contending that the administration is "doing a lot more" than former President Donald Trump did to secure the border.

"More individuals encountered at the border will be removed or expelled this year than in any previous year," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.

Biden Trump Migrants Border
President Joe Biden is pictured during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 16 in Washington, D.C. The White House has defended Biden's immigration policies amid recent criticism about the U.S.-Mexico border. Peter Marovich/Getty Images

What Border Crossing Data Shows

According to a Newsweek analysis of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, overall encounters under the Biden administration have continued to trend higher than in previous years before recently decreasing in June. While the number of migrant encounters has fallen, those figures remain significantly higher than when Trump was in office.

Migrant encounters during the Trump administration did generally trend downward after he instituted the Remain in Mexico policy, which required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration court. Initially, there had been an uptick in encounters after the policy took effect in January 2019. However, by the end of that year, encounters had fallen below the figures seen a year before and remained relatively low until March 2021, which was when the Biden administration first faced national criticism related to the border.

Trump's Remain in Mexico policy stayed in place until August, when Biden was finally able to lift the program after months of a legal back-and-forth. It is unclear what the true impact of revoking the policy is. The number of encounters in the month since the policy was reversed have yet to be released, and even if they were, it is likely too early to extrapolate conclusions about the Trump-era policy.

Impact of Title 42

Experts also caution against relying solely on historical comparisons to understand the impact of immigration policies. Because pandemic-era factors like Title 42 halted the processing of all asylum-seekers who arrived at ports of entry, a revolving-door effect has ensued.

"The high numbers we are seeing now is largely the result of the same people trying to cross again and being caught again, which is in part the consequence of Title 42," Ieva Jusionyte, an associate professor on international security at Brown University, told Newsweek. "Because regular processing of asylum-seekers has been suspended since March 2020, more people have been waiting in Mexico to make their claims and new migrants join them every day, fleeing their home countries for reasons that were there during Trump."

Newsweek's analysis shows that while the number of Title 42 expulsions accounted for just over 20 percent of apprehensions in March of 2020, the figure rose to 90 percent and hovered steadily around that mark until the end of that year. In July of this year, Title 42 expulsions accounted for less than 38 percent of encounters.

On Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris told NBC's Meet the Press that she was confident the border is secure, but added, "We also have a broken immigration system, in particular, over the last four years before we came in, and it needs to be fixed." Her comment was criticized both by Republicans and members of the press given recent migrant deaths and busing of migrants across the country.

It's possible the number of encounters is inflated from people making repeated attempts to cross. Each time a person is apprehended is considered one encounter, regardless of whether it's their first attempt.

"Would-be asylum-seekers who have turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents and were quickly expelled under Title 42 authority have tried again, and again," Wayne Cornelius, the director of UC San Diego's Mexican Migration Field Research Program, told Newsweek. "They show up in Border Patrol stats as multiple encounters rather than discrete individuals."

The Story the Data Doesn't Tell

And data only reveals so much about immigration policies. What the data doesn't show is the result of the encounters (whether a visa was granted or not), and more importantly, how many people slipped through the border undetected, what is known as the "got away" ratio.

"The Border Patrol has never developed a scientifically defensible methodology for estimating the number of undetected entries," Cornelius said.

Because of the lapse in data, the high number of encounters seen under the Biden administration could mean that the border is more secure. Yet, it could also mean that the border is less secure because more people have slipped past the border, although Cornelius said there has been no evidence from government or academic sources that the ratio has changed significantly.

He added that there is no evidence that border enforcement has declined under Biden. While there has been a higher percentage of asylum-seekers paroled into the U.S. to await their hearings, it is a trend that has been seen in previous administrations, "and the differences from the Obama and Trump years to Biden are not that striking."

At the end of the day, Jusionyte said, "We just don't know what we don't know—that is, how many people succeed in crossing the border without being apprehended." With the limited numbers provided by the government, she said it's likely that humanitarian organizations providing aid to migrants are the ones with the best sense as to whether there truly is an influx of migrants.

"Because they meet the people both before they cross and after," Jusionyte said these groups would be able to better "compare the situation under [the] Biden and Trump administrations."