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Debunking the Nativist “Open Border” Narrative – A Short Resource Guide

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The border is NOT open

That fact has been reiterated repeatedly, including under oath, by Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security officials. In reality, and much to the consternation of immigration advocates, the Biden administration has repeatedly and publicly told would-be migrants not to come. The Biden administration has also continued many of the restrictive Trump policies and imposed steep penalties for unauthorized crossing. Seeking legal entry at the border with a claim for asylum is still the law of the land, as it has been for the decades following the horrors of turning away refugees before and during WWII. The process of seeking asylum is an arduous one with several layers of vetting and is in no way reflective of an “open border.” 

In spite of the facts, the “open borders” myth remains one of the most frequent nativist narratives deployed by the right. It is a convenient political slogan that isn’t about solving immigration challenges, but instead about spreading disinformation. Worse, the evidence suggests the intentional confusion created by the right’s “open borders” narrative is a gift to the cartels and smugglers who use that misinformation to convince desperate people to make a harrowing journey to the border. New research suggests that people in Central America who hear the “open borders” disinformation are two times more likely to think about making the trek to the southern border. 

Below is a short resource guide to provide the facts and bust the myths about the not so “open border.”

  • No matter how many times the lie of “open borders” is repeated, it doesn’t make it true. While “open borders” may be a convenient and ubiquitous political attack slogan, that doesn’t make it true. The border is, in fact, not open. Many journalistic, fact-checking, and other investigations have made this abundantly clear. All of the evidence points to strict enforcement of the border under Biden in accordance with U.S. laws. As Cato Institute researcher David J. Bier stated, “This criticism is not simply inaccurate: it is unhinged from reality in a way that distinguishes itself from normal political hyperbole. Indeed, U.S. immigration policy is effectively closed borders, and Biden’s immigration policies and goals are largely the same as those of President Donald Trump.” In further analysis of the data, the Cato Institute found the Biden Administration “has removed a higher percentage of arrested border crossers in its first two years than the Trump DHS did over its last two years.” Finding “the Biden DHS is removing 3.5 times as many people per month as the Trump DHS did.”
  • The most deadly – and profitable – border in the world. Research by the Border Report and TomDispatch, indicates that Biden has spent more on the border in his first three years than Trump spent in four.  The remains of at least 853 migrants – a record – were found in the border area, almost assuredly an undercount of the actual butcher’s toll. That number “dwarfing the record of 568 set the previous year.” A record $29.3 Billion overall spending on border enforcement – also a record – in 2023 made it a very profitable year for private industries contracting with the Department of Homeland Security and other entities. “The number of border contracts issued to private industry also set a new record. Like those deaths, such contracts soared in fiscal year 2023 to $9.96 billion, instantly stripping the previous high, also set last year, of $7.5 billion.” That level of spending and deaths – and the increases since the Trump years – ought to silence the many politicians using the “open borders” phrase to scare voters.
  • CBP and Border Patrol have repeatedly confirmed the border is NOT open. In May 2023, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated that “the border is not open.” CBP reiterated this the following summer, stating that “the border is not open to irregular migration; individuals and families without a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed.” At a Congressional hearing in February 2023  At the hearing, Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) asked Border Patrol Chief Gloria Chavez Chief Chavez, “When President Biden took office, did your agents stop enforcing the border and just allow everybody to come in thus creating what we hear here is an open border. Did that happen when the President took office?” Chief Chavez replied: “The answer is no, sir. We continue to enforce policy and laws.”
  • Research suggests politicians’ rhetoric about “open borders” is encouraging some Central Americans to consider making the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. First of its kind research found a clear link of the negative effects of disinformation about “open borders” coming from U.S. politicians. First, the disinformation about the U.S.-Mexico border is widespread, with 1 in 5 Central American respondents hearing and believing right-wing rhetoric that the “border is open.” The poll found that people who remember hearing American politicians saying the border is open are over twice as likely to report believing the border is open. And second, those who are exposed to the “open borders” disinformation report that they are twice as likely to consider the trip to the border.
  • Disinformation about open borders is a gift to cartels and puts desperate people at risk. At a February Congressional hearing, Border Patrol Chief, John Modlin, testified that apprehended migrants “primarily tell border agents that they heard the border ‘was open.’” Recounting this exchange in his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank asked wryly, “Now where would migrants get the false impression that the United States has an open border? Hmm.” There is only one party that is loudly proclaiming the border is open, and that is the GOP. This disinformation is a gift to smugglers and cartels, who are exploiting it to their own advantage as part of their effort to convince desperate people to spend all their money to make the harrowing trip to the border. In a telling example, Alfredo Corchado, a border correspondent with The Dallas Morning Newsshared a short interview with a Venezuelan migrant “lured by false social media posts,” notably from conservative outlet Breitbart.
  • The “open borders” myth is a pervasive political attack line. America’s Voice ad tracking project identified well over 600 different paid ads from Republican campaigns in the ‘22 midterms that pushed the lie about “open borders.” Several ads also used clips of Democrats pushing back to support the GOP claim they Democrats are lying about an open border. For example, an ad from Adam Laxalt, the Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, used a clip from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto saying, “first of all there is no open border” (See additional examples of open borders ads here, here, and here.) Pushing this myth is also a regular part of Republicans’ daily chatter online, with America’s Voice identifying new examples daily and well over 1,000 unique tweets from Republicans with “open borders” disinformation throughout 2023. 
  • Right-wing media has given millions worth of air time to the false “open borders” narrative. As America’s Voice Executive Director Vanessa Cárdenas wrote in her op-ed at The Messenger, media tracking by Media Matters for America found that Fox News mentioned “open borders” 3,842 times from Nov. 1, 2020, through Aug. 22, 2023. Adding in the separate 3,257 times that Newsmax mentioned “open borders” during the same time window, and these two right-wing media outlets alone have provided the advertising equivalent of more than $30 million worth of airtime to “open borders” disinformation.
  • The right pushed the false “open borders” narrative even before Biden was sworn in. Top political appointees in the Trump administration and their allies began peddling the “open borders” myth in August of 2020 months before even the election. See such examples as Tom Homan on Fox News in August 2020 blaming Biden for a 40% increase in border apprehensions occurring under Trump – a full five months before Biden took office – and the December 2020 efforts from anti-immigrant talking heads Mark Krikorian and Ken Cuccinelli to brand the “Biden effect” before even the new President’s inauguration.
  • Top officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly warned migrants not to come. “I can say quite clearly: Don’t come,” President Biden said when asked about what he would tell migrants arriving at the border in an ABC News interview in March 2021, “don’t leave your town or city or community,” he added. In her very first foreign trip in June 2021, Vice President Harris traveled to Guatemala with the message, “Do not come. Do not come.” She added, “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas has maintained a similar message, as told in a Politico headline from July 2021 that reads, “Mayorkas to Cubans, Haitians: Do not come to the U.S.” Mayorkas reiterated the “not come” message in May 2022, stating clearly that “the border is not open.” CBP published a video and social media post where a U.S. Border Patrol agent warned: “People should not believe smugglers or others claiming the borders are open.  The borders are not open to irregular migration, and people should not make the dangerous journey.” 
  • The persistence of unauthorized crossing is a decades-old problem indicative of an outdated, broken system, NOT an open border.  America can protect our borders with both order and justice. Spikes in arrivals occur periodically; the current number of migrants coming to the United States is neither entirely unique nor unprecedented. Success should not be measured by numbers but by how we’re capable of effectively following our laws and living up to our values as a welcoming nation. 
  • Maximizing the cruelty at the border doesn’t solve the challenges of irregular migration but can make it worse. Trump’s wall and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Rio Grande saw blade barrier don’t actually work at deterring migrants. These border barriers have not been about actual policy, but instead are a monument to nativism and a backdrop for political theater with deadly consequences. Moreover, there is zero evidence of effectiveness against unauthorized migration. In fact, in ruling against Abbott’s saw blade barrier this past fall, a court determined that Texas “did not present any credible evidence that the buoy barrier as installed has significantly curtailed illegal immigration across the Rio Grande River.” Nor did even the Trump administration’s horrific family separation policy work to deter migrants. Over the years and successive admissions, what has been constantly clear is that the deterrence-only approach does not and will not work.  
  • Ending Title 42 did not “open the border.” The Biden administration replaced the program with one that creates stiff penalties for irregular migration. No, the ending of Title 42 did NOT open the border. Title 42 was a failed, non-immigration policy and the Biden administration replaced it with Title 8, which unlike Title 42, issues serious penalties for irregular migration.
  • The border has never been more resourced. The border has never been more resourced, with Border Patrol’s budget increasing from $363 million in 1993, to nearly $5 billion in 2021. CBP itself is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the nation. “A combination of physical barriers such as fences, surveillance technology such as drones and about 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents help limit who and what comes into the United States,” Politifact, a project of the Poynter Institute, has stated.
  • It is significantly harder to cross the border without detection than ever before. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 was the first time the Border Patrol apprehended most people crossing the border. Those crossing without authorization are now more likely to be caught.CBP reports that in Fiscal Year 2021 (October 1, 2020 to September 31, 2021), Border Patrol agents “reache[d] a detection site in a timely manner” 96.9% of the time, the highest rate recorded to date.
  • Seizures of fentanyl at ports of entry are not evidence of “open borders.” Fentanyl seizures have increased under the Biden administration, but this increased interdiction is not, as Republicans absurdly suggest, evidence of “open borders” but the exact opposite. As CNN’s political fact checker Daniel Dale noted: “Republicans also keep citing the large quantities of fentanyl being at the border, but fentanyl being seized is more proof the border is not actually open … The image Republicans are trying to create is a migrant sneaking through the desert with a sack of drugs, that happens in some tiny percentage of cases, but it is certainly not the predominant story.”