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PolitiFact FL: Francis Suarez's misleading claims on migrants getting free phones, flights

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez greets guests before being inaugurated as the 80th President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Maurice A. Ferré Park in downtown Miami, Florida on Monday, January 3, 2022.
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez greets guests before being inaugurated as the 80th President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Maurice A. Ferré Park in downtown Miami, Florida on Monday, January 3, 2022.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, in a speech to likely Republican primary voters, presented a grim picture of the U.S. under President Joe Biden.

"In Biden’s America, 7 million people illegally crossed the border and are given a free cellphone and airline tickets — and fentanyl is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans," Suarez said July 16 at the conservative Turning Point Action Conference.

Suarez is one of several Republicans vying for the 2024 Republican Party’s nomination for president. We have previously documented the toll of fentanyl deaths in the country, so we wanted to look into his claim about phone and airline benefits for migrants.

READ MORE: New immigration law forces family to flee Florida, leaving behind American-born student

PolitiFact found that Suarez inflated the number of people who have crossed the border and omitted important details about why some migrants get cellphones and why they’re placed on flights.

Experts also found Suarez’s claim problematic.

Thomas Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Suarez "very carefully avoids saying who gives these people airline tickets and cellphones."

What Suarez’s 7 million figure claim leaves out

Suarez arrived at 7 million by tallying the nationwide number of migrant encounters recorded by border authorities at and between ports of entry from January 2021 to June 2023. (Biden was inaugurated Jan. 20, 2021, so that month includes data under former President Donald Trump.)

But it’s hard to tell from that data how many migrants stayed in the U.S.

Encounters data does not reflect the number of individual immigrants stopped. If one person tries crossing the border three times, for example, that would register as three encounters.

Customs and Border Protection data shows that millions of encounters led to removals. From March 2020 to May 2023, border officials enforced Title 42, a pandemic-era public health policy that allowed them to quickly expel migrants who crossed the southwest border. There were 2.5 million expulsions under that policy.

During Biden’s tenure, there have been around 485,000 removals initiated by border authorities, CBP data shows.

Cellphones are for immigration tracking, not personal use

Suarez's framing makes it seem as though the Biden administration initiated a cellphone policy for migrants. But the program he's criticizing started in 2018, during the Trump administration. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sometimes issues smartphones to immigrants it releases from its custody and who are awaiting a deportation hearing.

The phones are issued to people who don’t have their own device and are loaded with an application called SmartLink, which ICE uses to track the people’s whereabouts. As a condition of their release under the Alternative to Detention program, migrants must routinely check in with immigration authorities using the phone; some migrants also wear an ankle bracelet for GPS monitoring.

These phones cannot be used to call or text family and friends, to browse the web or download other apps. ICE data shows that 190,600 people were using the SmartLink app in fiscal year 2023. That figure includes people who are using it on their own device and on government-issued devices.

ICE Air flights take migrants to detention centers, out of the country

Suarez’s statement gives the impression that all immigrants who cross the border illegally get a plane ticket to go wherever they want. The federal government does arrange flights for some migrants, but these often are flights to remove people from the country or take them elsewhere while still in immigration custody.

These ICE Air Operations flights take immigrants to a detention center back to their home countries or to other countries such as Mexico, that have agreed to accept them.

This has been happening at least since 2006, when George W. Bush was president.

There have been 17,963 "likely ICE Air flights," including 3,107 removal flights during Biden’s presidency, according to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks these flights.

More than 48,000 people were removed from the United States in the first half of fiscal year 2023 via ICE Air, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Because, by law, children who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian cannot be held by border officials longer than 72 hours, CBP transfers them to Department of Health and Human Services custody. That department then transports the children, often by plane, to family members in the U.S. or licensed shelters.

Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, also said that some nongovernmental organizations fly and bus people away from the border and to other cities and states where they have family and want to settle.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican presidential nomination candidate, has also used taxpayers’ funds to fly newly arrived migrants to other cities and states, arguing thatillegal immigration is so high that states with immigrant-friendly policies should take them in.

Our ruling

Suarez said, "in Biden's America, 7 million people illegally crossed the border and are given a free cellphone and airline tickets."

This is misleading. Although immigration authorities nationwide have encountered migrants nearly 7 million times at and between ports of entry during Biden’s presidency, that doesn’t mean 7 million people have crossed into the country. CBP’s data tracks events, not individuals.

ICE issues cellphones to some migrants released from federal custody, but these phones track migrants; they’re not for personal use.

ICE uses flights to remove people from the U.S. or to take them to detention centers. Following the law, a separate U.S. agency flies unaccompanied children around the country to reunite them with family members or get them to shelters for care.

Suarez’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning organization seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.