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Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 18, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP) Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 18, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP)

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 18, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP)

Maria Ramirez Uribe
By Maria Ramirez Uribe December 6, 2022

Pence’s claim about a 90% drop in illegal immigration during Trump administration is wrong

If Your Time is short

  • There were more than 650 miles of barriers at the southwest border before the Trump presidency, and the administration only added a few more miles of primary barriers. The Trump administration mainly replaced older barriers with new ones, which may have prevented some illegal crossings, but how much is hard to quantify.

  • Experts said Trump administration policies, such as “Remain in Mexico,” likely contributed to immigration declines throughout the administration, but weren’t solely responsible for them. 

  • The global COVID-19 pandemic influenced migration declines in 2020, and that context is important.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is back in the public eye, promoting his new book and fueling speculation that he may run for president in 2024.

Pence recently highlighted the immigration policies of the Trump-Pence administration during a speech at the annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.

"We need to secure our border and end the crisis by continuing to build the wall and restore the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy that reduced illegal immigration by 90%," Pence said Nov. 18, referring to the Trump-era policy that sent some asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court proceedings. 

A Pence spokesperson told PolitiFact that Pence was referring to the building of the border wall when he spoke about a 90% reduction in illegal immigration. The spokesperson, however, did not specify the time frames Pence used to reach this conclusion. 

Still, Pence’s phrasing during the Las Vegas event gave the impression that he was also connecting a 90% drop in illegal immigration to the "Remain in Mexico" program.

On multiple occasions, Pence has said the Trump administration reduced illegal immigration by 90%. In January, he connected this alleged drop to building the wall and the "Remain in Mexico" program. 

"On Day One, President Biden undid the policies that President Trump put into effect that reduced illegal immigration by 90%," Pence told Jesse Watters on Fox News. "That ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, as you know Jesse, was working. We built hundreds of miles of border wall."

Construction of southwest border barriers went on for years throughout the Trump administration, and mainly resulted in the replacement of older barriers with new ones. The "Remain in Mexico" program was one of many enforcement policies Trump instituted during his four years in office. It was used in 81,000 cases of the nearly 5 million encounters at the border during that period. So, proving that any declines in illegal immigration are attributed exclusively to one or both of these two factors is difficult.

Also, the pandemic heavily influenced immigration patterns and data tracking.

COVID-19 affected immigration patterns, policy and data 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, immigration drastically dropped worldwide as governments enacted policies limiting people’s movement. In the U.S., Trump instituted Title 42, a public health policy that authorized the Border Patrol to immediately return most immigrants back to Mexico. The increased use of this policy decreased the use of other programs, including "Remain in Mexico." 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the pandemic also adopted a new way of reporting migrant encounters. Before the pandemic, it only reported enforcement actions under immigration law; its data during the pandemic includes actions taken under both immigration law and the public health policy. Therefore, 2020 data isn’t entirely comparable to pre-pandemic numbers. 

Accounting for challenges in data comparisons, our review found an increase of 300% in illegal immigration from Trump’s first full month in office, February 2017, to his last full month, December 2020. 

One way to get close to Pence’s alleged 90% decrease in illegal immigration is by comparing data from May 2019, the month during the administration that had the highest apprehensions, to April 2020, the month with the lowest enforcement actions in calendar year 2020. 

But choosing those data points would be cherry-picking and doesn’t consider other factors. 

Immigration dropped in April 2020, but increased after that month. These two data points also do not encompass all of the Trump administration nor the time frame "Remain in Mexico" was in place.

Hard to quantify how border wall, ‘Remain in Mexico’ affected immigration

The southwest border had about 654 miles of barriers before the Trump-Pence administration. By mid-2020, the border had only about 3 additional miles of these primary barriers. The administration mainly replaced dilapidated barriers past administrations had installed.

So it’s difficult to attribute immigration fluctuations exclusively to the construction of border barriers.

The "Remain in Mexico" policy started in late January 2019 and rolled out in phases across the southern border. During the program’s first few months, Border Patrol apprehensions continued to increase and reached their apex under Trump in May 2019. Illegal immigration decreased after May 2019 and continued declining until April 2020. It began increasing again after April 2020.

"The overwhelming reason that border encounters dropped so dramatically in 2020 is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which deeply chilled migration and other forms of human mobility," said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

It’s worth noting that "Remain in Mexico" wasn’t the administration’s most widely used immigration enforcement tool, either. In July 2019 — the month that the program was most used — Border Patrol made about 72,000 apprehensions and applied the program to nearly 3,000 of the people apprehended.

"Against all immigration enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program has been a tiny one," Mittelstadt said.

The Trump administration in 2019 implemented other measures to reduce illegal immigration at the southern border. That included an agreement with the Mexican government to deploy thousands of Mexico’s National Guard members to its northern and southern borders to limit the number of people who reached the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Remain in Mexico" likely decreased illegal immigration, but it wasn’t the only factor and it’s hard to quantify its impact, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, an immigrants' rights advocacy group. 

"A lot of border ebbs and flows are hard to explain," Reichlin-Melnick said. "People make decisions to migrate, most, before they ever leave. They make their choices along the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, which can itself take months. And so it's very hard to pinpoint one specific action and say, ‘This is a reason why people stopped coming.’"

President Joe Biden tried to end "Remain in Mexico," but in August 2021, a federal court in Texas ruled that he had to reinstate it. The Biden administration restarted the program in December 2021 because of the court order. But in July 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Biden could end the program. The Biden administration officially ended the program in August.

Our ruling

Pence said the border wall and the "Remain in Mexico" policy "reduced illegal immigration by 90%."

Apples-to-apples immigration data isn’t available to adequately assess migration flows during the Trump administration, which started before the COVID-19 pandemic and ended during it. Pence’s spokesperson didn’t provide information that proved a 90% decline in illegal immigration.

There were more than 650 miles of barriers at the southwest border before the Trump presidency, and the administration only added a few more miles of primary barriers. The Trump administration mainly replaced older barriers with new ones, which may have prevented some illegal crossings, but how much is hard to quantify.

Experts said Trump administration policies, such as "Remain in Mexico," likely contributed to immigration declines throughout the administration, but weren’t solely responsible for them. The global COVID-19 pandemic influenced migration declines in 2020, and that context is important.

The burden of proof is on the speaker. In the absence of evidence clearly connecting a 90% decline in illegal immigration to a border wall or to another Trump policy, we rate Pence’s claim False.

Our Sources

Phone interview,  Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, Nov. 28, 2022

Email interview, Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute, Nov. 28, 2022

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Policy Guidance for Implementation of the Migrant Protection

Protocols, Jan. 25, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Border Migration FY 2019, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Land Border Encounters, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

PolitiFact, Despite uptick in border encounters, policies for adults traveling alone haven't changed under Biden, June 2, 2022

Pew Research Center, After surging in 2019, migrant apprehensions at U.S.-Mexico border fell sharply in fiscal 2020, Nov. 4, 2020

United Nations, Growth of international migration slowed by 27%, or 2 million migrants, due to COVID-19, says UN, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

National Immigrant Justice Center, A Timeline Of The Trump Administration’s Efforts To End Asylum, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

NPR, Trump Signs Agreement With Guatemala To Limit Asylum Seekers, July 26, 2019

NPR, 'Poppycock!': Federal Judge Bars CBP Employees From Screening Asylum-Seekers, Sept. 1, 2020

Buzzfeed News, Under Trump’s New Project, Border Patrol Agents Have Approved Fewer Than Half Of Asylum Screenings, Nov. 7, 2019

American Immigration Council, A Primer on Expedited Removal, July 22, 2019

WOLA, One Year After National Guard’s Creation, Mexico is Far from Demilitarizing Public Security, May 26, 2020

The News York Times, Mexico’s National Guard, a ‘Work in Progress,’ Deployed to Curb Migration, June 14, 2019

The Washington Post, Mexico is sending its new national guard to the Guatemala border. The mission is unclear., June 10, 2019

Human Rights Watch, 'Remain in Mexico', accessed Nov. 29, 2022

American Civil Liberties Union, Trump’s Remain in Mexico Policy is at the Supreme Court. Here’s What's at Stake., April 25, 2022

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Pence’s claim about a 90% drop in illegal immigration during Trump administration is wrong

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