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Biden and Abbott Twist Their Border Narratives

President Joe Biden, who recently made his first visit as president to the southern border, and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who greeted Biden in Texas, offered competing versions of who’s to blame for a spike in illegal immigration. But both twisted some facts to fit their partisan narratives.

In remarks prior to his trip to his Jan. 8 trip to El Paso, Texas, Biden said that on his first day in office he proposed a comprehensive plan to “overhaul … a broken immigration system” but that “congressional Republicans have refused to consider” his plan. Republicans opposed his plan, but the bill never came up for a vote because it also did not appear to have enough support among Democrats.

In a letter he hand-delivered to Biden, Abbott claimed, “Under President [Donald] Trump, the federal government achieved historically low levels of illegal immigration,” and “by contrast, America is suffering the worst illegal immigration in the history of our country” under Biden. Apprehensions of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally have soared in Biden’s presidency, but apprehensions were not at historic lows under Trump.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after Abbott handed him a letter outlining the problems on the southern border upon arrival in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 8. Photo by Jim WATSON/AFP via Getty Images.

In fact, after falling in his first year in office, apprehensions rose in 2018, spiked in 2019 and were higher in 2020, Trump’s last year in office, than the year before he took office in 2017.

As a record number of migrants continue to attempt to cross illegally into the U.S., Biden has faced growing criticism from Republicans for failing to address what Biden has acknowledged is a “difficult challenge.”

In remarks to reporters from the White House ahead of his trip, Biden blamed Republicans for the problems at the border, while in Abbott’s letter to the president, he accused Biden of enacting “open-border policies” that violated the president’s “constitutional obligation to defend the States against invasion through faithful execution of federal laws.”

We’ll sort through two misleading points each made in making their case.

Biden Blames Republicans

In his remarks on border security and enforcement on Jan. 5, Biden outlined executive actions he planned to take to deal with “our situation in the southwest border.” Since Biden took office, just over 4 million people have been apprehended by border patrol agents while attempting to cross the border illegally.

As we wrote in our last “Biden’s Numbers” story in October, that represents a historically high surge, and apprehensions over the last 12 months have more than tripled compared with the number of apprehensions in Trump’s final year in office.

While Republicans have blamed Biden for the surge — we have detailed some of the factors beyond his control as well — Biden laid blame for the problem on Republicans.

“On my first day in office … I sent Congress a comprehensive piece of legislation that would completely overhaul what has been a broken immigration system for a long time: cracking down on illegal immigration; strengthening legal immigration; and protecting DREAMers, those with temporary protected status, and farmworkers, who all are part of the fabric of our nation,” Biden said. “But congressional Republicans have refused to consider my comprehensive plan.”

Biden accused Republicans of “using immigration to try to score political points” even as they “reject solutions” that could improve what he said has become “a difficult problem” at the border.

It’s true that on his first day in office, Biden sent Congress an immigration bill that he said would “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system.” The proposal would have provided a pathway to citizenship for many of those currently in the country illegally, increased diversity visas and increased assistance to countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the country of origin for many of the immigrants trying to cross the border at that time.

The bill also sought additional funding to “implement a plan to deploy technology to expedite screening and enhance the ability to identify narcotics and other contraband at every land, air, and sea port of entry.”

Based on Biden’s plan, the following month, in February 2021, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez formally introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act in the House. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.

The New York Times described the bill as “a lengthy wish list for pro-immigration activists and a down payment on Mr. Biden’s campaign promise to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. It would allow virtually all undocumented immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship; increase legal immigration; add measures to secure ports of entry and speed processing of asylum seekers; and invest $4 billion in the economies of Central American countries to reduce migration.”

Neither bill came up for a vote even though Democrats enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress.

Biden is right that Republicans opposed the bill. The New York Times noted that many Republicans said the bill didn’t invest enough in border security and would only encourage illegal immigration.

“This blatantly partisan proposal rewards those who broke the law, floods the labor market at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, fails to secure the border, and incentivizes further illegal immigration,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, who was the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee at the time.

A month after the bill was proposed, the New York Times reported on March 15 that not only Republicans were opposing the comprehensive legislation, but also “progressives and moderates” were at odds over the bill.

According to the New York Times, “Moderate Democrats have been hesitant to take difficult votes on a bill they know will be pilloried by Republicans and are pushing for a change in approach to more closely resemble past efforts that traded legalization of undocumented workers for tighter security at the border.”

As an example, the story quoted centrist Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas saying he would like “something a little more moderate, especially when it comes to border security.”

“Speaker Pelosi has discovered that she doesn’t have support for the comprehensive bill in the House, and I think that indicates where it is in the Senate as well,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

A year later, in April 2022, the nonprofit news site Documented reported that the U.S. Citizenship Act “was ultimately abandoned by lawmakers in favor of smaller separate bills, given the unlikelihood that such sweeping reforms would gain enough support from Republicans and conservative Democrats to pass the Senate.” But even some of the smaller measures “stalled in Congress while others have perished as part of the broader Build Back Better bill,” the report stated.

Abbott Blames Biden

Shortly after Biden arrived in El Paso on Jan. 8, Abbott greeted the president with a handshake and a letter attacking his immigration policy.

“Your visit to our southern border with Mexico today is $20 billion too little and two years too late,” the letter began. “Moreover, your visit avoids the sites where mass illegal immigration occurs and sidesteps the thousands of angry Texas property owners whose lives have been destroyed by your border policies.”

Abbott accused Biden of failing to enforce immigration laws enacted by Congress, and called for a return to the policies under Trump.

“Under President Trump, the federal government achieved historically low levels of illegal immigration,” Abbott wrote. “Under your watch, by contrast, America is suffering the worst illegal immigration in the history of our country.”

It’s true that apprehensions of people attempting to cross illegally into the U.S. along the southern border shot up after Biden became president.

But it’s misleading to say the number of apprehensions was “historically low” under Trump. As we wrote in “Trump’s Final Numbers”: “Illegal border crossings, as measured by apprehensions at the southwest border, were 14.7% higher in Trump’s final year in office compared with the last full year before he was sworn in.”

The number of apprehensions plummeted in the immediate months after Trump took office in January 2017 — what an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute referred to as “the Trump Effect” — after constant talk on the campaign trail about building a wall and cracking down on illegal immigration. The monthly low of 11,127 apprehensions in April 2017 is unmatched in Customs and Border Protection monthly records going back to 2000. For the entire fiscal year, the number of apprehensions totaled 310,531, according to CBP data dating to fiscal year 1925. That’s the lowest fiscal year total since 1971. But it’s not a record.

The apprehension numbers from fiscal years 1925 through 1946 were in the tens of thousands before spiking in the late 1940s and into the mid-1950s, and then dropping below 100,000 again from 1956 to 1967.

So the total in Trump’s first year was low compared with numbers in the last several decades, but not a historical record.

But more importantly, the number of apprehensions started to creep back up in late 2017. The number of apprehensions during the Trump years peaked in calendar year 2019, when nearly 800,000 people were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally at the southern border. That was higher than any year going back to 2007, and was higher than any year during President Barack Obama’s tenure, based on our review of monthly CBP data. In 2020, aided in part by the pandemic, numbers fell from the 2019 totals, but they were still higher than all but one of Obama’s eight years in office.

And again, in Trump’s final year in office, illegal border crossings, as measured by apprehensions at the southwest border, were higher than the last full year before he was sworn in.

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