Assessing Republicans’ claims about immigration during border visit

The trip reflects the extent to which immigration has become one of President Joe Biden’s biggest political vulnerabilities.

(Kenny Holston | The New York Times) House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), center, leads a delegation of House Republicans on a visit to the southern border in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

More than 60 House Republicans traveled to the southern border in Texas on Wednesday, seeking to pressure the Biden administration to enact stricter immigration policies as a record number of migrants enter the United States. They gathered near the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, a town of fewer than 30,000 that has become a popular crossing point.

But on Wednesday, only a few migrants were seen traversing the narrow stretch of the river from Piedras Negras, Mexico, and climbing up the banks on the U.S. side. (The number of illegal crossings along the southern border often declines around the holidays, and fewer people tend to cross if a notable event is expected on the U.S. side.)

“One thing is absolutely clear: America is at a breaking point with record levels of illegal immigration,” Speaker Mike Johnson said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “And today, we got a firsthand look at the damage and the chaos the border catastrophe is causing in all of our communities. The situation here and across the country is truly unconscionable.”

The visit reflects the extent to which immigration has become one of President Joe Biden’s biggest political vulnerabilities, particularly as the 2024 presidential election nears.

Republicans’ visit to Eagle Pass comes as Congress seeks to reach a deal over a spending package that would provide military aid to Ukraine in exchange for more stringent border policies.

On Wednesday, House Republicans threatened to stop funding the federal government if Biden and Democrats did not “shut the border down.”

Here’s a fact check on some of their statements.

What was said

“We have lethal drugs that are pouring into our country at record levels.”— Johnson

This needs context. It is true that large amounts of fentanyl and other deadly illicit drugs have been flowing into the United States from Mexico. But the majority is trafficked through official ports of entry, not on the backs of economic and asylum-seeking migrants like those who have been coming to the country through Eagle Pass.

For example, in December, federal officials at the Ysleta port of entry in El Paso, Texas, discovered 123 pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine over three days, hidden in vehicles coming from Mexico.

What was said

“That 312 suspects on the terrorist watch list that have been apprehended — we have no idea how many terrorists have come into the country and set up terrorism cells across the nation.”— Johnson

This needs context. From October 2020 to November 2023, 312 migrants — of more than 6.2 million — who crossed the southern border triggered matches with names on the terrorist watch list, according to government data. But it is not clear how many of them were actual matches and whether the FBI considered them to be national security threats.

The watch list is a vast intelligence database with more than 2 million names of known terrorists and suspects, according to a recent CBS News report. The list also includes people with ties to them, like family members, many of whom are not considered to be involved in terrorist activity.

When migrants are arrested after crossing the border illegally, officials run background checks, including against the terrorism watch list. When a person is flagged at the border as a possible match to a name on the watch list, the name is relayed to the FBI, and the bureau determines whether the person is a match and indeed a threat, or if agents need more information to confirm whether the person in border custody is the same as the person listed on the watch list.

What was said

“Director Wray admitted before my committee the other day — our committee the other day — that with the border wide open and a war in Israel, Hamas can just walk right in. That’s the director of the FBI. He fears for his own agents. It’s clear this is intentional.”— Rep. Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., chair of the House Homeland Security Committee

This is misleading. The southern border has not been a popular entry point for terrorists. Dating back to 1975, no one has been killed or injured in a terrorist attack in the United States that involved someone who came across the border illegally, said Alex Nowrasteh, the vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.Green appeared to be referring to a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 15. At the time, he asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about the potential terrorism threat posed by migrants who crossed the southern border but evaded detection. Border agents refer to these migrants as “got-aways.” Green said about 2 million migrants had crossed without detection since Biden has been in office.

In their exchange, Green asked whether people on the terrorism watch list could be among those who entered the country without detection: “Can the FBI guarantee the American people that known or suspected terrorists, including any from Hamas or other terror groups, are not amongst those got-aways?”

Wray replied that this was an obvious worry but that there was no real way to know. “Well, certainly the group of people that you’re talking about are a source of great concern for us,” he added.

Green pressed further, asking, “But there’s really no way for you to guarantee that Hamas isn’t in those?”

Wray repeated his emphasis on the ambiguity. “Well, again, as you say, there’s the unknown unknown and the known unknown,” he said. “But what I can tell you is that our 56 joint terrorism task forces are working their tails off to make sure that they suss out and identify potential terrorist suspects, whether they’re on the watch list or not.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.