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Fact checking Biden on migrant surge during first news conference

The president made claims around a seasonal influx of arrivals, his predecessor's policies, and the number of migrants sent back.
A group of migrants families from Guatemala, rest while waiting at an intake area set up by the U.S. border patrol in Roma, Texas, on March 24, 2021.Dario Lopez-Mills / AP

President Joe Biden defended his administration's handling of a surge in undocumented migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, arguing that the influx happens "every single solitary year."

“The truth of the matter is, nothing has changed," he told reporters at the White House, who pressed him on whether his election had drawn more migrants to the southern border.

Biden also sought to cast blame on former President Donald Trump, arguing that his predecessor's policies hamstrung U.S. efforts to effectively address the challenges.

Here's what Biden said, and the facts.

Claim: The border surge is akin to past years

“The truth of the matter is, nothing has changed. As many people came — 28 percent increase in children to the border in my administration. Thirty-one percent in 2019 before the pandemic in the Trump administration,” the president said. “It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March — it happens every year.”

Biden is right that the colder months typically bring a surge of border crossings, but his numbers on children are wrong.

There was a 28 percent surge in apprehensions at the southern border from January to February of this year, the most recent and complete data point from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) available right now. The Trump administration saw a 31 percent surge in migrant apprehensions from January to February 2019.

But Biden specifically mentions children, and that’s where his facts are incorrect. There is a far bigger surge of unaccompanied minor children right now than there was two years ago. From January to February 2019, there was a 31 percent surge in children stopped by CBP. From January to February 2021, there has been a 61 percent surge in those stops.

What’s more, the February numbers do not address what’s happening right now in March. As of March 23, there were 4,962 children in CBP custody, well above the 30-day average of 3,243, according to an update from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday.

In mid-March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was brought in to help handle the surge of migrants children. On March 18, FEMA awarded $110 million in supplemental funding to feed and shelter migrants.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the numbers in March.

Claim: Trump eliminated funding to address root causes of migration

Biden went on to say that the U.S. needs to mitigate issues in Central America to prevent children from attempting to cross the border in the first place, and blamed Trump for his handling of that work while president.

“They’re coming because the circumstances in country, in country. The way to deal with this problem, and I started to deal with it back when I was vice president, putting together a bipartisan plan of over $700 million to address the root causes of why people are leaving. What did Trump do? He eliminated that funding. He didn't use it. He didn't do it," Biden claimed.

This is partially true. While Trump did announce $700 million in aid cuts to Central American countries in 2019, the State Department later restored the majority of that funding.

Biden officials have previously suggested that Trump administration hamstrung efforts to respond to an expected surge of children attempting to cross the border. NBC News reported that the Biden transition team urged officials to expand shelter space for migrant children in early December, but the Trump administration did not take action until days before inauguration.

Claim: 'Vast majority' of migrants, including families, are being sent back

"If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people who are coming to the border crossing are being sent back,” Biden said.

This point is true, according to CBP data which shows that more than 70 percent of border apprehensions in February 2021 are being returned to Mexico under Title 42, the legal authority used to send back migrants. February is the only full month of data under the Biden administration currently available.

But Biden also went on to say that the U.S. is "sending back the vast majority of the families coming."

That is not true for the month of February. Less than half the nearly 20,000 apprehensions of family units were returned under Title 42, according to CBP data.