Did Biden Really Fly 33K Migrants 'Straight to New York'?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been chartering buses to transport asylum-seeking migrants to New York City since 2022. Is Biden's program any different?

Published April 17, 2024

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  • In April 2024, the claim that U.S. President Joe Biden had authorized the flights of "33,000 illegal immigrants" straight to New York City went viral.?
  • The claim originated from an op-ed piece in the New York Post authored by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a far-right think tank that has long opposed a Biden administration program that allows asylum-seeking migrants from certain nations to fly into the United States while an immigration court adjudicates their claims.
  • CIS's op-ed attempted to place the purported 33,000 New York arrivals in the context of a Texas program that charters busses to send asylum-seeking migrants to New York City. New York City has initiated a lawsuit over that Texas program.
  • The claim rests on the assumption that migrants arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York do not take a connecting flight. There are several reasons to be suspicious of that assumption, which CIS described to Snopes as "pure speculation."??

In early April 2024, critics of U.S. President Joe Biden accused his administration of flying "33,000 illegal immigrants" straight to New York City.?The accusation stemmed from an April 8, 2024,?opinion piece in the New York Post authored by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies.

The piece focused on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration program instituted by Biden's administration that authorized some asylum-seekers to fly to the U.S. while their claims of asylum were adjudicated. CIS argued, based on its?own analysis of public data, that the initiative is of equal or greater blame for an alleged overflow of immigrants in New York City as that of a Texas program that charters buses to send asylum-seekers to New York:?

A new report from me and my organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, finds that the Department of Homeland Security secretly has okayed the flights of some 33,000 illegal immigrants directly to the New York region from foreign airports. That's 22% of the city's migrant influx. … Over 25 percent of New York's estimated migrants are bussed from Texas.

The New York Post's editorial board repeated the group's claims a day later, stating that "Biden's Homeland Security Department has also flown roughly 33,000 migrants straight to New York."

The Biden-sponsored?program at issue involves?an "advanced travel authorization" (ATA) process for asylum-seekers from certain nations, allowing them to apply for asylum from abroad and then fly to America for a period of no more than two years while they wait for an immigration-court decision. CIS generated viral headlines with an?earlier report?that Snopes covered in March 2024,?which asserted that this program was "secretive" because the government would not tell the CIS which domestic airports the migrants were using.

In its latest report, CIS claimed to have uncovered those airports through the use of publicly available data. According to CIS, the majority of the program's beneficiaries arrived in the states via Miami, but a significant number, about 33,000,?entered the U.S. via airports in the?New York City area.

This was significant, CIS argued in its op-ed, because it was comparable to the number of migrants in New York who arrived via the Texas-sponsored charter bus program, which New York Mayor Eric Adams has initiated a lawsuit over. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced?in January 2024 that?"over 37,100 migrants" had boarded charter buses from Texas to New York by the end of 2023.?

In this piece, Snopes explains why CIS' 33,000-migrant estimate is flawed, and why comparisons between these two programs are misleading. First, CIS' argument is based on the assumption that the airports through which asylum-seeking migrants go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints are also their final destination. There is no reason to believe that is the case. Second, the people arriving with advanced authorizations paid their own way, and are subject to conditions that Texas-originating migrants, whose travel was paid for, are not.??

Snopes reached out to CIS to ask what basis it had for assuming most of the New York City arrivals would stay put in the city and not travel domestically. In response, the study's author, Todd Bensmen, told us his numbers were "pure speculation" and that the real point of his piece was that the government has not provided enough information to make an informed estimate. "The problem there is that the government refuses to release the meat and potatoes of this supposedly fully open kimono program? departure and destination airports," Bensman wrote. "In the absence of information, reasoned analytical speculation naturally arises."?

CIS — which described a rise in U.S. immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as "hair-raising" in its April report — has a history of publishing dubious arguments that bolster conservative talking points about immigration.?In 2018, for example, Snopes examined a mathematically flawed argument by the center that then-President Donald Trump's border wall wouldn't really cost the government billions of dollars because it would "pay for itself" thanks to reduced welfare costs.?The Southern Poverty Law Center has?classified CIS as a hate group.

Conditions That Preceded the Texas and Federal Programs

Both Abbott's and Biden's initiatives are theoretically designed to solve the same problem: a buildup of asylum-seeking migrants at the U.S. southern border. The bottleneck, in part, is a result of Biden-era policy changes following the expiration of a pandemic-related law that allowed federal officials to remove undocumented immigrants?from the U.S. without any court proceedings.

Before the pandemic, as The Associated Press reported, "migrants could cross illegally, ask for asylum and be allowed into the U.S." for screening. Oftentimes, officials would release them "to wait out their immigration cases." Then, in?March 2020,?under Trump's administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an order that authorized federal customs agents to "immediately remove migrants, including people seeking asylum, to prevent the spread of [COVID-19]," policy changes known as Title 42.

Those guidelines of immediate deportation continued until May 2023, the date of their expiration. And instead of returning to pre-pandemic conditions after that, as?reported by the AP that month, Biden instituted stricter rules for people seeking asylum:

The Biden administration is now turning away anyone seeking asylum who didn't first seek protection in a country they traveled through, or first applied online. This is a version of a Trump administration policy that was overturned by the courts.?

One result of this new policy was a buildup of asylum-seekers from Central American nations — primarily Venezuela — at the Mexican side of the U.S. border, something to which the Mexican government objected. In late 2022, to try to mitigate the issue, officials made an agreement that the?United States could expel Venezuelan nationals to Mexico, and that the U.S. must institute a program that allows "a set number of Venezuelans with a sponsor in the United States to apply for humanitarian parole" ahead of their arrival and arrive by plane. Individuals who have requested asylum and been released pending a court decision are termed parolees.??

Here's How Abbott and Biden Took Action

As crossings increased in 2022, and in anticipation of the end of Title 42, Abbott announced Texas would "immediately begin taking unprecedented action to … secure our border" by chartering "buses and flights to transport migrants who have been processed and released from federal custody" to a variety of cities, including New York City.?

Biden's solution to the climbing number of crossings, on the other hand, was to expand the above-mentioned program beyond just Venezuelan citizens. He enacted a policy to give people from?Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Ecuador?the same type of treatment.?

As of this writing, that system remains in place.?People who are provided the option to apply for humanitarian parole receive what is known as an "advanced travel authorization" from customs officials, and go through the process using a web app named CBP One.?

Port of Entry Does Not Equate to Final Destination

The argument that the Biden administration is responsible for 33,000 of migrants in New York City rests on several assumptions, the most significant of which is that the airport in which asylum-seeking migrants first encountered federal customs officials is their final destination.?

As described in its report, CIS got its data directly from Customs and Border Protection, which publishes data on "airport customs officer encounters" on its website. CIS says it filtered the CBP data to show encounters only between nationalities involved in the ATA program and from field offices that included major international airports.?These encounters, CIS reasoned, primarily represented individuals traveling with an ATA.?

(Center for Immigration Studies)

Even if you assume all 33,000 people identified by this method remained in New York, this number would still be an overestimate of the program's contribution to New York's migrant population, according to Monika Langarica, a senior staff attorney with the UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy. That's because CIS' filtering would also count nationals from the countries selected without "advanced travel authorization" as if they were part of that program.?

Further, John F. Kennedy International Airport is the busiest airport in America for international travel and is a common first?stop for people arriving in the United States.?"JFK International Airport has repeatedly been noted to be the busiest international 'gateway' to the U.S.," Langarica told Snopes by email. "It is no surprise that it would be the first stop in the U.S. for individuals who intend to travel on into the interior of the country to meet their sponsors."

According to CIS, there were 33,408 encounters between CBP officers and nationals from the selected nations in the New York field office for the 2023 fiscal year so far (June 2023 to February 2024):

The New York Field Office, which would cover JFK and LaGuardia airports … logged 33,408 OFO encounters with inadmissible aliens from the chosen nationalities for FY 2023 through February 2024.

This is the source of the "33,000" number cited by CIS. But that assertion is flawed because it?assumes that 100% of people arriving from abroad under the ATA program are staying in New York City and not connecting on a domestic flight after passing through customs. "Individuals traveling … pursuant to the program are en route to their sponsor who may be located anywhere in the U.S," Langarica told Snopes.?

The New York Post opinion piece, authored by CIS, acknowledged how connecting flights could affect the data, but only in ways that served its thesis. The piece argued that 33,000 was actually a conservative estimate because many arrivals in Miami (the first most common point of entry identified by CIS) were, in fact, getting on connecting flights — to New York City. This shifting logic is not the hallmark of sound quantitative argument.

Snopes asked Bensman, the author of the CIS report and the related New York Post op-ed, if the notion that migrants inherently flow toward New York City was based on anything more than a personal gut feeling. "Purely speculative on my part," he responded by email.?

Differences Between Abbott's and Biden's Programs

One could argue, perhaps, that the "over 37,100 migrants" Gov. Abbott says he?sent?to New York City also did not arrive there with New York as their final destination, giving the same caveat as the purported number of people arriving in New York under the federal ATA program.

However, there are key differences in the population of asylum-seekers admitted through the federal ATA program and those who take buses from Texas to New York City. Many people taking the?cross-country bus trip have been released from CBP custody after requesting asylum on U.S. soil. They've made the request at a port of entry, or after crossing the Mexico-U.S border illegally, during their first encounter with CBP agents.?

This process, known as the affirmative asylum process, usually results in the initial denial of an applicant's request for asylum.?They can appeal that decision to an immigration court. And while pursuing that appeal, if the individual submits biometric information and passes a criminal background check, they are released with a "notice-to-appear" document and can legally reside in the U.S. "on parole" for up to a year while their case is pending. Abbott's program provides free bus rides to any such individual,?paid for by Texas.?

Because people's participation is often impromptu after illegally crossing the Texas border, there is no guarantee they have a support network in the U.S., much less in New York City (the end of the bus ride). Also, they are provided no services other than the bus ticket.

These facts are at the heart of a lawsuit?brought by New York City against charter-bus companies involved in Abbott's program. That case cites a New York law that requires "any person who knowingly brings, or causes to be brought a needy person from out of state into this state for the purpose of making him a public charge … to convey such a person out of state or support him at his own expense."? ?

Recipients of the federal ATA program, on the other hand, pay for their own flights into the United States, and are required to have a U.S.- based sponsor. That person must be registered with immigration officials before the trip. Also, the person traveling must submit biometric data and complete a background check.

That means ATA recipients often arrive in the United States with a plan for where, or how, they'll live.?As for people who do make New York City their final stop, according to Langarica, they "will be there with the support of their sworn sponsor who has been previously vetted by USCIS as being capable of financially supporting the beneficiary, and they are eligible to apply for work authorization incident to the grant of parole."?

The Bottom Line

The assertion that roughly the same numbers of New York City asylum-seeking migrants arrived there via the ATA program and the Texas program is based on the unsupported assumption that all ATA recipients make New York City their final destination when coming to America.?While they make contact with customs officials there, there is no evidence to show how many, or who, gets connecting flights to other destinations.


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Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.