President Biden has requested that Congress give him $13.6 billion to increase deportations of people crossing the border illegally, but congressional Republicans are reluctant to comply because they believe Biden has intentionally opened the borders and can’t be trusted. However, data from the Trump era clearly show that, if he were in office, Trump would not be deporting any more border crossers than Biden has.
As I previously demonstrated, President Biden removed a higher percentage of border crossers in his first two years than Trump did during his last two years (51 percent versus 47 percent), despite Trump having to deal with many fewer total crossings (Table 1). Congress right now is in a bipartisan state of denial about these three central facts:
- The reason people are being released is because of operational capacity to detain and deport them, not policy.
- Biden has deported vastly greater numbers and a higher share of crossers, but it has not deterred people from crossing.
- The logistics are such that once arrivals exceed the deportation machine’s capacity, people will find out and even more will come.
The data presented in Table 1 come from March 2023, and the situation may have changed now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended the national health emergency in May 2023, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can no longer use the Title 42 health code authority to expel people to Mexico.
Therefore, it is worth revisiting what we could have realistically expected from a Trump‐era deportation machine in this moment.
Table 2 shows the pre‐Title 42 removal rate (share of border encounters in fiscal years 2019 and early 2020 that were removed by March 31, 2020) for each major demographic group. These rates are then applied to the most recent border encounters for November 2023. As it shows, based on how they performed in 2019 and 2020, before Title 42, we would expect a Trump administration to have removed 29.2 percent of the people who crossed the border illegally in November 2023. In other words, even under Trump, over 70 percent of crossers would not be removed.
We would expect that of the 191,113 Border Patrol arrests, a Trump administration would have removed 55,784. This is almost exactly the number of crossers who were not granted humanitarian release by Border Patrol in November 2023: 57,122. The DHS does not publish exact monthly removals, but it says that it deported “over 400,000” people over the last seven months. That equals about 57,000 removals per month, exactly what we’d expect from a Trump administration.
Of course, this assumes that a Trump administration could maintain a consistent removal rate despite the higher rate of arrivals, and this is unlikely. The removal rate significantly dipped from about 50 percent in 2018 to 32 percent in 2019 when border encounters almost doubled from half a million to nearly a million. Now, arrests are on track to double the 2019 level. It stands to reason that, faced with this increase in arrivals, the rate of removals would’ve fallen again. The fact that it did not fall is a testament to the extraordinary lengths to which the Biden administration has gone to sustain high removal rates, even after the expiration of Title 42.
President Biden has negotiated a shocking and unprecedented deal with Mexico to permanently deport some Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans there. This is very different from Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy that returned some crossers there temporarily until their cases were decided. Biden has also obtained permission from the governments in Venezuela and Cuba to accept more deportations, and he has imposed a presumptive ban on asylum.
But this strategy hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work now because, as we saw during Title 42, even the total suspension of asylum law and a much higher rate of removal did not deter crossers because there was still a reasonable possibility of success, and the US economy was doing so well. Biden needs to refocus on reforming legal immigration to fix the problems at the border.