Fact Checking the Fact Check: CIS Reporting Stands

By Todd Bensman on March 7, 2024

Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat contacted the Center for Immigration Studies on Wednesday seeking comment for a “fact check” about how others, including Donald Trump and Elon Musk, have characterized my March 4 report “Government Admission: Biden Parole Flights Create Security ‘Vulnerabilities’ at U.S. Airports.

Casual readers of the fact check may get the impression that there is no government-authorized direct-flight program for inadmissible aliens at all or, alternatively, that it’s all an open book. But it exists. It’s not an open book. And CIS will pursue its lawsuit for the rest of the information and report the outcome.

“This is a fact check on Trump and Musk, not on CIS’s report,” Spagat wrote us in an email reaching out. “I know all too well that reporters can’t control how audiences interpret their work but want to ask if you wish to comment on whether Trump and Musk amplified your findings correctly.”

True to his word on that, the resulting Fact Check by Spagat, published today, does not challenge any part of my report, which examined the latest installment on a Biden administration program authorizing hundreds of thousands of inadmissible aliens to fly directly from foreign airports into American ones. However, the AP fact check still somehow seems to cast shade on my report, leading to a perception among casual readers that it is all untrue, which requires some address.

First, my March 4 report for CIS is accurate, as Spagat explained in his email and in subsequent text messages back and forth (while I was on a flight). But it did get somewhat reinterpreted by many others, who should read my material carefully before writing or speaking about it.

My accurate report was about a direct-flight program the Biden administration stood up in late 2022 and early 2023, initially to allow Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (and now five additional nationalities) to skip the visa process and apply to DHS for air travel to the United States and release into the country from those airports. Under the program, the Biden Department of Homeland Security authorizes their self-paid air travel from foreign airports and into American ones.

Through December 2023, some 320,000 inadmissible aliens applied for this program on the mobile phone CBP One app and, if they received the authorization, would pay to fly themselves into a U.S. airport where government agents would “parole” them into the country for two years with eligibility for work authorization.

That is all true.

But CIS filed a Freedom of Information Act request a year ago because government reporting about this program was opaque about what was happening and left important aspects of it entirely unaddressed in the public record, such as which airports the migrants were flying from abroad and which ones they were flying to inside the United States. This latter part is important, in my view, so that receiving cities might be able to plan budgets and resources for the influx, or to petition federal officials to slow or even shut it all down.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection ignored our FOIA request, and so CIS sued for far a more detailed breakdown of information about this program.

I wrote the March 4 installment because government attorneys told us they would not release the foreign departure and domestic U.S. airports on the quite newsworthy grounds that they asserted that all the flying in of inadmissible aliens created security vulnerabilities at the airports. “Bad actors” might exploit these if they knew the names and locations of these airports at home and abroad. In other words, the Biden administration claimed that the administration’s own legally dubious use of parole was a security threat.

But soon, news organizations began misreporting some of this, primarily in two ways.

First and perhaps more importantly, some of the re-reportings incorrectly said the government itself was “flying” immigrants in, as though taxpayers were picking up the tab. As far as I know, that’s not true, nor have I ever reported anything other than that the program requires the migrants to pick up the tab. Again, the U.S. government only authorizes the flights, which some may consider bad enough.

The second common misconception is that all of this is a “secret” program. It may be “secretive,” or “enigmatic” and among the Biden administration’s “least known and least understood,” as I often characterize it based on the emphatic lack of granularity in what the government does sort of report about this program. But never have I called it an outright secret government program. I hyperlink all of the government regulations and pronouncements about it.

But Spagat’s piece goes too far the other way in suggesting otherwise. He goes into some detail about what public information the government does produce about this direct-flight program, as though it’s all open kimono. I tried with text messaging to explain the problem to Spagat about the data shortcomings, but he was on deadline.

“I think I will put out an initial version without relying on this text exchange, which will confuse readers,” he texted back. “I can update the story. As I said in my email, the story does not challenge your piece, just the statements by Trump and Musk.”

Spagot did agree with me that what the government does put out there was less than satisfactory.

“I don’t dispute the lack of transparency on some of these parole uses,” Spagat texted me.

Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and quite a few others seemed to go with some parts of those mischaracterizations about a “secret” government flights program where U.S. taxpayers pay for immigrants to fly over the southern border, Musk parroting in a Tweet or two and adding that he thought its purpose was to import Democratic voters.

I told Spagat I didn’t think Trump was squarely wrong when he suggested during his Tuesday night victory speech that immigrants “were flown” from “parts unknown…not going through borders…It was unbelievable. I said it must be a mistake.”

I told Spagat I didn’t think that line quite rose to an inaccuracy. Government “authorization” of those flights should be enough to cover Trump’s statement that “migrants were flown in airplanes” from “parts unknown” because the government still won’t release to CIS the departure airports in foreign countries. (The people eligible for this parole program have to be nationals of one of the nine countries, but can fly to the U.S. from anywhere.)

What is true is that the government is authorizing hundreds of thousands of immigrants to fly into dozens of U.S. airports for paroled release into the country.

What is true is that mayors and city councils do not know which airports are receiving them and in what numbers each month.

What is true is that the American public still does not know from which foreign airports they are departing – the “parts unknown” – so that someone may go there and interview the immigrants and examine how the program actually works.

The Associated Press “fact check” somehow casts shade on CIS’s accurate reporting and probably leaves many casual readers with the perception that there is no government-authorized direct-flight program for inadmissible aliens at all (“Trump lied again!”) or, alternatively, that it’s all an open book.

But it exists. It’s not an open book. And CIS will pursue its lawsuit for the rest of the information and report the outcome.