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Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.'s comparison is complicated, because the COVID-19 pandemic changed how immigration officials tracked illegal immigration.
Available data shows that enforcement actions under President Joe Biden so far have not been higher than the combined figures for the Trump and Obama administrations.
Scott’s campaign also used inconsistent metrics to calculate encounter totals and cast a wider net for Biden than for the other two presidents.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., on his quest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has been posting statistics on social media that criticize President Joe Biden’s policies on gasoline prices, inflation and immigration.
But some of the data he’s shared isn’t accurate.
"There have been more illegal encounters under Biden than the previous two administrations combined," Scott posted July 11 on X, formerly Twitter.
Scott’s comparison is complicated because the COVID-19 pandemic changed how officials report immigration data. Starting in March 2020, Title 42, a public health policy, allowed border officials to quickly expel people arriving at the southern border to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. (The policy expired May 11.)
"Encounters" data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection since the policy’s implementation included expulsions under the public health policy and enforcement actions under immigration law, such as apprehensions and determinations of inadmissibility.
Before that, CBP provided only the number of enforcement actions under immigration law.
Because of this tracking change, "it’s not possible" to directly compare "encounters" across administrations "simply because there were no ‘encounters’ during the Obama administration and during the majority of the Trump administration," said John Gramlich, an immigration expert with the Pew Research Center.
But what we can draw from the available data does not support Scott’s claim. Illegal immigration levels — nationwide or just at the southwest border — so far are not higher under Biden than under his predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama combined.
From February 2021 (Biden’s first full month in office) to June 2023 (latest data available), U.S. Border Patrol recorded more than 5.1 million encounters with migrants nationwide.
From February 2009 (Obama’s first full month in office) to January 2021 (Trump’s last month in office), there were nearly 5.5 million migrant apprehensions by Border Patrol nationwide.
Similarly, encounters under Biden at the southwest border are lower than the combined number of enforcement actions under Trump and Obama.
The numbers in PolitiFact's analysis do not include enforcement data at ports of entry because detailed monthly statistics are not available for Obama’s tenure and most of the Trump administration.
Scott’s campaign sent us a yearly breakdown of the data it used for its calculation. But there are problems with the metrics used:
For Biden’s calculation, Scott’s campaign used two metrics, encounters both at and between ports of entry.
For Trump and Obama, Scott’s campaign used only encounters between ports of entry.
For most years, the campaign looked only at data at the southwest border, but for fiscal years 2011 and 2014, it used national data.
Scott’s campaign didn’t reconcile that federal fiscal years (which span from October to September) can include data for two presidents — a new president is usually inaugurated in late January. So, it included George W. Bush data in its Obama count and Trump data in its Biden count.
The campaign undercounted enforcement actions under Obama and Trump by about 100,000. And it overcounted encounters under Biden by about 1 million.
The campaign calculated that there were more than 5.2 million enforcement actions combined during the Trump and Obama administrations.
Scott’s calculations include data from all of fiscal year 2009, despite Obama being president for only eight full months that year. Scott also didn’t include the four months in fiscal year 2021 that Trump was president.
For Biden, Scott’s team included data for four months of Trump’s presidency and tallied southwest border enforcement by officials at and between ports of entry, resulting in "nearly 6 million encounters."
However, if we correct Scott’s data under Obama and Trump, there were nearly 5.4 million enforcement actions at the southern border and fewer than 5.1 million under Biden so far.
Scott said, "There have been more illegal encounters under Biden than the previous two administrations combined."
Immigration data changed in March 2020, complicating an exact data comparison across administrations. However, the available data doesn’t support his claim, either.
Nationwide and southwest border data shows there have been fewer enforcement actions under Biden than under Trump and Obama combined.
Scott’s calculation also used inconsistent metrics and cast a wider net for Biden than for the other two presidents.
Given the flaws in the math, we rate this claim False.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Nationwide Encounters, accessed July 21, 2023
U.S. Border Patrol, Monthly Apprehensions (FY 2000 - FY 2019), accessed July 21, 2023
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Land Border Encounters, accessed July 21, 2023
PolitiFact, Title 42 expiration: What's next for migrants applying for asylum at US’ southern border?, May 8, 2023
PolitiFact, Pence’s claim about a 90% drop in illegal immigration during Trump administration is wrong, Dec. 6, 2022
Tweet, Tim Scott, July 11, 2023
Tweet, Tim Scott, July 21, 2023
Tweet, Tim Scott, July 17, 2023
Email exchange, Tim Scott campaign spokesperson, July 21, 2023
Email exchange, John Gramlich, associate director of Short Reads at Pew Research Center, July 24, 2023
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