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Trump’s Misleading Chart on Illegal Immigration

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During a speech in Green Bay, Wisconsin, former President Donald Trump pointed to a chart on apprehensions of people trying to enter the U.S. illegally at the southwest border.

“See the arrow on the bottom? That was my last week in office,” Trump said. “That was the lowest number in history.” But Trump was wrong on both points.

In fact, the arrow is pointing to apprehensions in April 2020, when apprehensions plummeted during the height of the pandemic. In his last months in office, apprehensions had more than quadrupled from that pandemic low and were higher than the month he took office.

Also, April 2020 was not the lowest point in history. The lowest since 2000 came in April 2017, shortly after Trump took office and before an ensuing spike.

As we have written, 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.

Trump’s Chart

During his speech in Green Bay on April 2, Trump claimed to have “fixed” the border when he was president.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on April 2 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

“When I came in, I built 571 miles of wall, we had 200 miles sitting there waiting to be erected, far more than I said I was going to build,” Trump said.

Actually, a total of 458 miles of “border wall system” was built during the Trump administration, according to a Customs and Border Protection status report on Jan. 22, 2021. Most of that, 373 miles of it, was replacement for primary or secondary fencing that was dilapidated or outdated. In addition, 52 miles of new primary wall and 33 miles of secondary wall were built in locations where there were no barriers before. Including barriers that existed before Trump took office, there are now about 706 miles of barriers, covering about 36% of the total southwest border. That is far less than the 1,000-mile-long wall that Trump promised during the 2016 campaign.

Trump then had campaign aides put up a chart showing monthly border apprehensions going back to 2012. You can see the chart in the background of the C-SPAN video, but here it is:

“See that low spot,” Trump said, pointing to the red arrow at the bottom of the chart. “This is illegal migrants coming into our country. See the arrow on the bottom? That was my last week in office. That was the lowest number in history.”

Had President Joe Biden “just left everything alone, he might have gone down as a decent president, at least on the border,” Trump said. “But on the border, look at that number, that number is so much lower than anything else. And then look at the right of that number. That’s what happened after I left. It was an invasion of our country.”

“It’s an amazing chart actually,” Trump said. “It’s a Border Patrol chart. But look at that low number, got it down to practically nothing.”

Trump repeated the claim in an April 4 interview with Hugh Hewitt, saying, “We had the safest border in history, and you saw that chart that was released a couple days ago where literally the day I left office, we had the lowest number in history.”

The data in the chart itself are accurate, but the Trump campaign editorial notes are not.

The red arrow at the bottom purports to correspond to the point that “Trump leaves office” and to be the “lowest illegal immigration in recorded history!” But the arrow actually points to April 2020, when there were 16,182 apprehensions at the southwest border.

April 2020 was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout that month, the U.S. was under Trump administration guidelines recommending people stay at home and away from one another to slow the spread of the disease.

“Any complete reading of what took place at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2020 would have to note the emergence of a global pandemic that dramatically chilled mobility of all forms in its early phase,” Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, told us via email. “That is not a factor listed on the chart below, best I can tell.”

“The pandemic was responsible for a near-complete halt to all forms of global mobility in 2020, due to a combination of border restrictions imposed by countries around the world (we recorded more than 43,000 travel measures taken by countries between January and May 2020 alone, lockdowns, and the shutdown of aviation and other transportation routes),” Mittelstadt said.

As the chart shows, after apprehensions reached a pandemic low in April 2020, they rose every month after that. By the actual end of Trump’s presidency, apprehensions of immigrants attempting to cross illegally had risen to 71,141 in December 2020 and to 75,316 in January 2021, Trump’s last month in office.

Border Wasn’t ‘Fixed’

In recent speeches, Trump has claimed he fixed the border so completely during his presidency, that it was no longer a campaign issue in 2020.

“I was saying the other day that in 2016, one of the biggest issues was the border,” Trump said during a speech in Ohio on March 16. “And I sort of won on the border, I guess, maybe. And we fixed the border. We fixed it so good that I couldn’t even use it in 2020, even though we got millions and millions more votes in 2020, but we couldn’t even talk about it. I’d say, ‘I want to talk about the border. Tell them what a good job.’ They said, ‘Sir, you fixed it. Nobody cares.’”

In reality, apprehensions at the border in Trump’s final two months in office were substantially higher than in President Barack Obama’s last two months in office. (Apprehensions were 43,251 in December 2016 and 31,576 in January 2017, the last two months of the Obama presidency, compared with 71,141 and 75,316 in Trump’s last two months.) Indeed, there were more than 69,000 apprehensions in each of the last four months of the Trump administration, from October 2020 through January 2021. But the highest number of apprehensions under Obama was 67,342 in March 2009.

And 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 of Obama’s term.

Given that, had Obama “fixed” the border? Not according to Donald Trump in 2016. Then, he repeatedly called the border “broken” and made fixing it his primary campaign promise.

We have described the roller-coaster of illegal immigration during Trump’s time in office. The number of apprehensions fluctuated wildly from a monthly low of 11,127 in April 2017 shortly after he took office to a high of 132,856 in May 2019.

The number of apprehensions peaked for Trump in mid-2019, and the year ended with the highest number of apprehensions since Fiscal Year 2007. In response to rising levels of apprehensions, Trump issued several policies to reduce immigration flows, including measures to restrict eligibility for asylum and return non-Mexican asylum seekers who cross the southwest border to Mexico while their claims work their way through immigration courts (the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program). Correspondingly, apprehensions dropped steadily through the second half of 2019 and into 2020.

And then, when the pandemic hit, apprehensions dropped even more dramatically in April and May 2020. In response to the pandemic, Trump put into place a series of policies aimed at blocking migration to the U.S., including one that allowed Border Patrol agents to quickly expel any illegal immigrants they stopped, without allowing them access to the asylum process. Nonetheless, apprehensions increased throughout the second half of 2020.

To be sure, illegal immigration soared after Biden took office, as the chart shows even without cherry-picking the pandemic low. According to our latest update to “Biden’s Numbers” in late January, apprehensions for the 12 months ending in November were 296% higher than during Trump’s last year in office.

We discussed some of the reasons for that dramatic increase, including not only high levels of migration around the world due to political and economic turmoil in other countries, but also the perception that Biden was more welcoming of migrants.

But illegal immigration was not “down to practically nothing” in the weeks or months before Trump left office. It was down to nearly nothing during the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic.

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