On March 4, 2024, the claim that the Biden administration had secretly flown 320,000 migrants into the U.S. in 2023 went viral. That claim originated from a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. The report, and its assertions, gained significant exposure when the Daily Mail covered it and Elon Musk shared the Daily Mail article on X (formerly known as Twitter). Former U.S. President Donald Trump also repeated the claim in his Super Tuesday victory speech on March 5, 2024.

The central assertions made by CIS, repeated by the Daily Mail or others, were that:

  • A Biden administration program was responsible for flying 320,000 migrants directly into the United States between January and December 2023. (TRUE)
  • The program was a secret whose details were discovered by an outside group. (FALSE)
  • The program allowed unvetted aliens to enter the United States. (FALSE)
  • The U.S. government admitted that the program was a national-security risk. (FALSE)
  • Such a program could affect U.S. politics by altering voter demographics. (FALSE)

Of these five claims, only the first was true. The program has never been a secret, it does not transport “unvetted” aliens, and participation in it requires significant vetting and a sponsor who is a U.S. citizen. The program provides no pathway to citizenship, which is a requirement to vote. 

The CIS report that originated the assertion that the government “admitted” the program was a national-security risk was based on a deceptive and incorrect reading of the government’s argument in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by CIS.

Who Are These 320,000 Migrants?

In March 2020, under Trump’s administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an order that authorized Customs and Border Protection to “immediately remove migrants, including people seeking asylum, to prevent the spread of [COVID-19].” This was something the government had a right to do in a public health emergency, the CDC argued, under a set of health laws known as Title 42.

Before that, The Associated Press reported, “migrants could cross illegally, ask for asylum and be allowed into the U.S.” where they would be “screened and often released to wait out their immigration cases.” The program of immediate deportation to Mexico continued under Biden until May 2023. As reported by the AP in May 2023, Biden instituted stricter rules for people seeking asylum in response to the expiration of that Title 42 justification:

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 policy was a buildup of asylum seekers from Central American nations at the Mexican side of the U.S. border. A solution to this problem was to expand a program that had begun in late 2022 that allowed the United States to expel Venezuelan nationals to Mexico while instituting a program allowing “a set number of Venezuelans with a sponsor in the United States to apply for humanitarian parole.” 

This humanitarian parole option expanded to include nationals from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Ecuador. People who are provided this option to apply for humanitarian parole receive what is known as an Advanced Travel Authorization from CBP. 

The process for requesting an ATA requires an app, created by CBP, named CBP-ONE. This app, among other things, allows asylum seekers to have their application for an ATA approved online, and assists in facilitating and scheduling flights for those pre-approved asylum-seekers.

CIS, the think tank responsible for the report that went viral, has opposed the existence of the program since it began in 2022. The group describes itself as “low immigration, pro-immigrant” and is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In March 2018, Snopes covered a mathematically flawed analysis from CIS arguing that Trump’s southern border wall would pay for itself.

The 320,000 number they cite, however, was posted directly by CBP.  Far from being a secret, CBP publishes these numbers every month. From January to December 2023, those disclosures indicate, 327,000 migrants made use of this program. 

This Program Is Not a Secret

The March 4, 2024, report by CIS claimed that the ATAs offered through CBP-ONE program were “secretive” and hidden from the public:

Thanks to an ongoing Center for Immigration Studies Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, the public now knows that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has approved secretive flights that last year alone ferried hundreds of thousands of inadmissible aliens from foreign airports into some 43 American ones over the past year, all pre-approved on a cell phone app.

Prominent GOP figures, including Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, repeated this claim of secrecy:

The program has never been secret. DHS announced it when it began in October 2022:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is developing a new, voluntary Advance Travel Authorization (ATA) process to collect information from eligible noncitizens requesting advance authorization to travel to the United States to seek a discretionary grant of parole. … ATA launched October 12, 2022, to implement a parole process for certain undocumented noncitizens from select countries and their qualifying immediate family members, under which those individuals may request advance authorization to travel to the United States to seek a discretionary grant of parole. … CBP’s ATA collection is conducted through the CBP One™ mobile application.

Migrants with approved ATAs taking flights to the U.S. booked through a CBP app were never a secret either. As described in a Congressional Research Service report made after the implementation of the Venezuelan humanitarian asylum option in October 2022:

The other major component of the policy changes is a new process to allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans who are outside the United States to travel by air to the U.S. interior and be paroled into the country. … Venezuelans granted parole will be allowed to stay for up to two years and apply for work authorization. Parole does not provide a dedicated pathway to U.S. lawful permanent residence.

In January 2023, when the humanitarian parole program expanded, Biden’s DHS published a notice in the Federal Register explicitly stating that the program was capped at 30,000 total migrants per month:

Pursuant to this notice, the Secretary has removed the limit of 24,000 total travel authorizations and replaced it with a monthly limit of 30,000 travel authorizations spread across this process and the separate and independent Parole Process for Cubans, Parole Process for Haitians, and Parole Process for Nicaraguans.

In other words, without any FOIA-ing whatsoever, any member of the public could have surmised, even at the start of the year, that roughly 360,000 migrants would enter the United states via this program and that they would do so via planes after scheduling a flight using the CBP-ONE app. In this context, CIS’ revelation of 320,000 was far from revelatory, and its assertion that these facts are kept secret was demonstrably false. 

These Migrants Were Not ‘Unvetted’

The assertion that these migrants are simply dumped in America without any vetting is false, despite being made by the Daily Mail, Musk and several members of the GOP

To participate, eligible beneficiaries receiving ATAs must “have a supporter in the United States” and “undergo and clear robust security vetting.” Their supporters must agree “to provide them with financial support for the duration of their parole in the United States.”  

CIS characterized the humanitarian asylum program as “Biden Parole Flights.” Such a phrase is great fodder for scary social media posts, like the one below from former Trump aide Steven Miller’s PAC, but the word parole means a specific thing in the context of immigration law that differs from its meaning in the criminal justice system.

As described in a Congressional Research Service report, the term refers to people allowed to remain in the United States who have requested, but not yet received, asylum:

Immigration parole is official permission to enter and remain temporarily in the United States. Existing law gives the DHS Secretary discretionary authority to “parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit any alien applying for admission to the United States.”

While CIS argued that these immigrants have no legal right to be here, a discretionary grant of parole provided by an ATA is itself a legal basis for them to “be here.” 

The Government Did Not ‘Admit’ the Program Is a National-Security Risk

The CIS report responsible for the recent headlines was titled “Government Admission: Biden Parole Flights Create Security ‘Vulnerabilities’ at U.S. Airports.” It makes the false claim that the government assessed that these “CBP-authorized arrivals” would undermine law enforcement efforts to protect the border:

The public can’t know the receiving airports because those hundreds of thousands of CBP-authorized arrivals have created such “operational vulnerabilities” at airports that “bad actors” could undermine law enforcement efforts to “secure the United States border” if they knew the volume of CBP One traffic processed at each port of entry.

That is not something that the government “admitted.” In reality, the government argued, in response to a CIS FOIA request for the names of the airports involved in the program, that the disclosure of that specific information — not the program itself — would create security vulnerabilities.

The quote at issue comes from a March 3, 2024, filing made by CBP in that case in which they justify their use of a FOIA exemption known as (b)(7)(E). Their argument, in full context, makes clear they think the release could demonstrate staffing vulnerabilities at airports (emphasis ours), not that the program itself is creating national-security vulnerabilities: 

Pursuant to FOIA Exemption 7(E) to protect the identifying information for airports and land ports of entry. This information, if disclosed, would reveal information about the relative number of individuals arriving, and thus resources expended, at particular airports and land ports of entry which would, either standing alone or combined with other information, reveal operational vulnerabilities that could be exploited. … Defendant intends to argue that the redacted information, if released, would expose staffing vulnerabilities at airports and land ports of entry.

Both the CIS report and the Daily Mail article included a direct explanation of the government’s rationale, but neither provided adequate context or mentioned that the government specifically identified the kind of vulnerabilities it thought would be created by the release of the names of the airports. Attempts to reach representatives for CBP and DHS for comment were unsuccessful. 

In this context, the “bad actors” at issue are not necessarily criminals trying to sneak into the United States to commit terrorism or bypass border controls, but could include U.S. citizens against the policy who might seek to subvert it or cause harm to those involved in it. Such a person could potentially be motivated to go to those airports to stop the migrants. 

Conspiracy Theories About Importing Democratic Voters Make No Sense

In Musk’s post about the CIS report — in which he speculated that “something far worse than 9/11” was in the works — he claimed that “this administration is … importing voters.” This is a reference to a long-held conspiracy theory that the aim of immigration reform efforts by Democrats is to gain voters.  

There is one problem with this hypothesis. The people admitted into the United States with an ATA are explicitly not given U.S. citizenship or a pathway to achieve it outside of asylum. Citizenship is one of the four main requirements to vote in America. If a migrant’s two-year period expires without an immigration court determining they have a reasonable basis for asylum, they will be deported, having never voted in a single election. 

The Bottom Line 

A program that is neither secret nor deemed a security risk by the United States government is responsible for flying more than 320,000 vetted migrants with U.S. citizen sponsors into American airports so they can maintain residency while their claims of asylum are adjudicated.  

CIS, the Daily Mail and other derivative coverage misleadingly cast the existence of this program, which was publicly launched in 2022, as a recent discovery of Biden administration deception. These claims do not hold up to any measure of scrutiny.