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What caused the Biden-era illegal immigration spike?

Tulsa, Oklahoma, police recently arrested a thrice-deported Salvadoran illegal immigrant for the rape and murder of Rachel Morin, a mother of five, found dead in August 2023 on a Bel Air, Maryland, trail. Yet within days of the suspect’s June 14 arrest, and his extradition back to Maryland, President Joe Biden had issued a potentially unconstitutional […]

Tulsa, Oklahoma, police recently arrested a thrice-deported Salvadoran illegal immigrant for the rape and murder of Rachel Morin, a mother of five, found dead in August 2023 on a Bel Air, Maryland, trail. Yet within days of the suspect’s June 14 arrest, and his extradition back to Maryland, President Joe Biden had issued a potentially unconstitutional amnesty for nearly 500,000 additional aliens and waived deportation of 350,000 more

Critics noticed. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), called Biden’s amnesty a “sham,” noting that “rolling out this unlawful order for mass amnesty as the country mourns the death of Rachel Morin at the hands of an illegal migrant is a disgrace.” Stephen Miller, an immigration point man in former President Donald Trump’s White House, dubbed the Biden policy an “unconstitutional amnesty to illegal aliens during a border invasion.” The former president and 2024 Republican nominee-in-waiting charged that “Biden is preparing to give MASS AMNESTY to hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens” and called the move “unsustainable.”

President Biden speaks about an executive order at the White House in Washington on June 4. Biden unveiled plans to enact immediate significant restrictions on migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border as the White House tries to neutralize immigration as a political liability ahead of the November elections. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Let’s step back from the rhetoric on both sides and examine the historical record. It shows a rise in illegal immigration is nothing new. 

On one hand, illegal immigration has spiked before. U.S. Border Patrol encounters with illegal immigrants at the southern border broke a million for the first time in 1954, likely because of the Bracero Program to facilitate Mexican workers during World War II, then dropped sharply after a crackdown. Encounters reached nearly 1.7 million in 1987, peaking just after President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That 1986 law granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens, and illegal entries dropped again as the prospects for legal status diminished.

Before 9/11, encounters reached almost that same level, plunging again when America locked the door after the Jihadi strike. Encounters hit a half-century low of under 311,000 in 2017 due to newly elected Trump’s early policies and the perception of toughened border security enforcement. But illegal entries rose again later in the Trump administration before the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

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On the other hand, never have people seen anything like the illegal immigration surge under President Joe Biden. From the Trump-era low, encounters screamed up over 2.3 million in 2022, a million-alien increase in just half a decade and a spike of 666%. By this measure at least, the Biden-era increase in illegal immigration is literally unprecedented. 

What caused this Biden-era illegal immigration spike? Biden’s recently signedProclamation on Securing the Border” names at least five specious explanations. First, Biden’s order says “failing regimes and dire economic conditions afflict many countries” — and some of those are even in the Western Hemisphere, it points out helpfully. Second, says the order, violence linked to transnational criminal organizations has displaced substantial numbers of people — in Latin America, in particular. Third, the coronavirus pandemic, or, rather, the crisis caused by the unprecedented steps taken in reaction to it, “upended societies around the globe.” Fourth, natural disasters have forced people from their homes. Fifth and finally, the illegal alien spike “is also the direct result of the Congress’s failure to update an immigration and asylum system that is simply broken.”

That said, none of the factors Biden cited adequately explains the historic illegal alien incursion under his administration. For instance, there may be failed regimes in the Western Hemisphere, but the number of free countries in the world has actually risen during Biden’s time in office. Likewise, certainly dire economic conditions afflict some countries today, but the overall number of countries with negative economic growth has plunged from 216 to just 17 as the world recovered from Biden-style COVID-19 policies. Moreover, though the number of people displaced by economics, COVID-19, disasters, TCOs, or other factors worldwide has indeed soared from 20 million the year of Biden’s election to 29 million today, only 363,000 of them want asylum in the United States, up a paltry 7% over the same period.

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Similarly, yes, what critics called “COVID crazies“ cratered countries worldwide — but thankfully the percentage suffering under a complete border closure, for instance, has plunged precipitously from 72% before Biden’s election to 21% after it. Last and likewise, Congress’s failure to update an immigration and asylum system that is simply broken has remained unchanged not only throughout the Trump and Biden administrations but arguably since at least 1990. Therefore, none of Biden’s excuses for the illegal immigration spike under his watch remotely match the pattern of that spike. 

No, the evidence points instead toward Biden as the culprit in the Biden border crisis. As a candidate, Biden signaled his support for loosening border security, pledging to undo Trump-era immigration restrictions such as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” popularly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the public charge rule that deterred new immigrants from relying on U.S. welfare programs, and the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Candidate Biden promised to expand the arguably illegal Obama-Biden Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals illegal alien amnesty program, eliminate restrictions on those from terrorism-linked and failed states claiming refugee status, and generally “[welcome] immigrants into our communities.” Finally, candidate Biden pledged to “commit significant political capital to finally deliver legislative immigration reform to ensure that the U.S. remains open and welcoming to people from every part of the world.”

Newly elected Biden moved rapidly to carry out that plan. On his first day in office, he halted construction of the wall, sent an amnesty bill to Congress including a permanent DACA program for 645,000 aliens who entered the country illegally as children, rescinded the Trump-era travel ban on immigration from terrorism-linked countries, and repealed a 2017 Trump executive order intensifying U.S. interior immigration enforcement.  

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The next day, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security began a 100-day moratorium on deportation, ostensibly to review policy, a move blocked by a federal judge. Regardless, the next month, Biden issued three executive orders loosening asylum and immigration rules at the U.S.-Mexico border, ordering a review with an eye toward ending both the “Remain in Mexico” and public charge policies. Unsurprisingly, therefore, from under 72,000 monthly illegal alien encounters at the southern border before his election, they nearly tripled to 213,000 by July 2021. 


The next year, Biden also ended the use of Title 42, a public health authority the Trump administration used to limit cross-border movement during the pandemic, admitting explicitly, “It’s going to be chaotic for a little while” at the southern border. Fact check: True. That month, illegal immigrant encounters hit a new high, and by December 2023, they topped 300,000 a month for the first time in history, a 320% increase from before Biden’s election — and up a towering 2,600% from the Trump-era low. 

This brings us back to Victor Antonio Martinez Hernandez, the alien who had crossed the border illegally three times before allegedly raping and murdering Morin. He’d been ordered deported a fourth time — but if it ever happens, it will come too late for Morin and her five children.  

Christopher C. Hull, Ph.D., is president of Issue Management, a public affairs firm that does grassroots and advocacy work including on national security. He was previously chief of staff to a member of the House of Representatives.

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