May 12, 2021

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Fact check: Biden’s speech to Congress included claims on economy, immigration, 1994 assault weapons ban – USA TODAY

11 min read

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden got some facts wrong and stretched others, mainly repeated claims we’ve heard before:

  • Biden said he inherited the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” But when he took office, the economy had recovered some from its low point earlier in the pandemic.
  • He repeated the debunked claim that he had “traveled over 17,000 miles” with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • Biden referred to the American Jobs Plan creating “millions of jobs” and generating “trillions of dollars in economic growth.” The jobs estimate is accurate, but economic growth projections are mixed.
  • The president said he is “restoring the program” to address the causes of migration from Northern Triangle countries that “the last administration decided … was not worth it.” Although funding for the initiative declined and was delayed during the Trump administration, it wasn’t completely eliminated, as Biden’s remark may have suggested.
  • Biden said the “vast majority” of the “over 11 million undocumented folks” in the U.S. overstayed a visa. But immigration experts estimate that most people living in the U.S. illegally crossed the southern border without authorization.
  • The president claimed the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired 10 years later, “worked,” but the academic evidence isn’t clear.

Biden spoke on April 28, one day shy of his 100th day as president.

Analysis

The economy Biden inherited

Biden early in his speech spoke about inheriting an economy severely battered by COVID-19, the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he said. The economy was struggling, but it had improved some by the time he was sworn in.

“I stand here tonight, one day shy of the 100th day of my administration. One hundred days since I took the oath of office and lifted my hand off our family Bible, and inherited a nation, we all did, that was in crisis,” he said. “The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

As we explained in January, the U.S. lost 22.1 million jobs in March and April 2020 — and then regained about half of those by November (though, some jobs were lost in December).

The unemployment rate reached 14.8% in April 2020, but by January that figure had dropped to 6.3%. (It has since dropped to 6% as of March.)

And in the second quarter of 2020, the gross domestic product — used to gauge the health of an economy — dropped by 31.4%. But the GDP then increased by 33.4% in the third quarter, followed by 4% in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The U.S. closed 2020 with an economy that had contracted about 3.5% from 2019 — the biggest drop since 1946.

So while the U.S. was no doubt grappling with the COVID-19 crisis and the economic fallout when Biden took office — and it still is — the country’s hurting economy had recovered some from its low point earlier in the pandemic.

Debunked claim on travel with Xi Jinping

In discussing the need for the U.S. to compete with the rest of the world, Biden briefly deviated from his prepared remarks and injected into his address a debunked falsehood about his travels with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“As Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken can tell you, I spent a lot of time with President Xi,” Biden said. “I traveled over 17,000 miles with him. Spent [over] 24 hours in private discussions with him.”

But Biden did not travel “over 17,000 miles” with Xi.

The president has touted that figure before. Our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post thoroughly examined this claim in February and could not arrive at anywhere close to that figure.

When he was vice president, Biden did meet with Xi on many occasions — including in China in 2011, in the U.S. in 2012, again in China in 2013 and once more in Washington in 2015. We note that some of those instances included multiple meetings (for example, in 2012, they met on Feb. 14 and then again three days later in Los Angeles). But the only time that the two appear to have actually traveled together, according to the Washington Post‘s findings, was when they visited a high school in Dujiangyan during Biden’s 2011 trip to China.

An unnamed White House official told the Post that Biden’s figure was actually a “reference to the total travel back and forth — both internally in the U.S. and China, and as well as internationally — for meetings they held together.” Even then, the Post could not ascertain exactly how the 17,000-mile figure was calculated.

Mixed economic projections on American Jobs Act

Biden referred to the American Jobs Plan creating “millions of jobs” and generating “trillions of dollars in economic growth,” citing “independent experts.”

The jobs estimate is accurate, although barely by one measure, and the economic growth projections are mixed.

Biden’s infrastructure plan, which will cost more than $2 trillion, is projected to add 2.7 million jobs over 10 years, according to an analysis by Moody’s Analytics.

As we have reported before, Moody’s analysis concluded that the U.S. economy would add 16.3 million jobs over the next decade even if the American Jobs Plan does not pass. If it does become law, the Moody’s analysis concluded the American Jobs Plan would provide an additional 2.7 million jobs for a total of 19 million over 10 years.

In a separate report, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects the Biden plan would “create or save 15 million jobs over 10 years.”

The report does not break out the number of new jobs created, saying only that “this investment could create and/or save 15 million jobs by generating opportunities for new jobs that did not exist before the stimulus as well as providing the necessary investment to save jobs that would otherwise be lost due to state and local government budget shortfalls.”

As for the economic growth, the prognostications vary greatly.

Moody’s Analytics said the plan would boost real gross domestic product, although in the short term it would reduce growth.

In early 2022, the plan would “marginally reduce growth, as the higher corporate taxes take effect right away while the increased infrastructure spending does not get going in earnest until later in the year,” Moody’s said. But “by 2023 and throughout much of the midpart of the decade the ramp-up in infrastructure spending significantly lifts growth,” the report said. “The apex in the boost to growth from the plan is in 2024 when real GDP is projected to increase 3.8%, compared with 2.2% if the plan fails to become law.”

Penn Wharton Budget Model, on the other hand, projects that the plan would increase federal deficits, crowd out private investment and reduce economic growth.

“(T)he tax and spending provisions of the AJP would increase government debt by 1.7 percent by 2031 but decrease government debt by 6.4 percent by 2050,” the Penn Wharton report said. “The AJP ends up decreasing GDP by 0.8 percent in 2050.”

Migration from Central America

Biden suggested former President Donald Trump’s administration ended a program to address the causes of migration to the U.S. from Central American countries — a program that Biden helped secure funding for when he was vice president. That’s not what happened.

Biden: We also have to get at the root problem of why people are fleeing particularly to our southern border from Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador. The violence. The corruption. The gangs. The political instability. Hunger. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Natural disasters. When I was vice president, the president asked me to focus on providing help needed to address the root cause of migration. And it helped keep people in their own countries instead of being forced to leave. The plan was working but the last administration decided it was not worth it. I am restoring the program and asking Vice President Harris to lead our diplomatic effort to take care of these.

Biden appeared to be referring to the “U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America,” which was funded with as much as $750 million during the Obama administration in fiscal year 2016.

As we’ve written before, the annual budget for that initiative declined significantly during Trump’s presidency. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, appropriations for the program declined to $685 million in FY 2017, $615 million in FY 2018, $528 million in FY 2019, $533 million in FY 2020 and $506 million in FY 2021.

But the initiative wasn’t completely eliminated, as Biden’s speech may have led viewers to believe.

The president may have been referencing the fact that the Trump administration did reallocate or temporarily suspend some of the money that Congress authorized for use in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

As a January CRS report said: “From FY2016 to FY2020, Congress appropriated more than $3.1 billion to improve security, governance, and socioeconomic conditions in Central America as part of a whole-of-government initiative to address the drivers of irregular migration. However, in March 2019 — less than two years into the initiative’s on-the-ground implementation — the Trump Administration suspended most foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Administration proceeded to reprogram approximately $396 million of aid appropriated for the Northern Triangle countries in FY2018, reallocating the funds to other foreign policy priorities within, and outside of, the Latin American and Caribbean region.”

CRS explained that the Trump administration “withheld most of the assistance Congress appropriated for Central America in FY2019 while it negotiated a series of agreements intended to stem the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle to the United States.” That led to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development closing down or canceling some planned projects and activities.

However, the report also said that — because some members of Congress argued the funding freeze was counterproductive — aid to the Northern Triangle countries that was previously held back began to be released late in 2019. And “all of the previously suspended assistance for the region” had been “programmed” by June 2020.

The Biden administration has announced it will restart the Central American Minors Program, which the Trump administration ended in 2017. But that program allowed qualified immigrant parents legally living in the U.S. to request that their children in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras be brought to the U.S. as refugees.

The program aimed to provide a “safe, legal, and orderly” way for children to come to the U.S., the Biden administration said — not ultimately “keep people in their own countries,” as the president said in his address.

Illegal immigration and overstaying visas

Referring to the entire population of people living in the U.S. illegally, Biden said: “On Day One of my presidency, I kept my commitment and sent a comprehensive immigration bill to the United States Congress. … If you believe in a pathway to citizenship, pass it. Over 11 million undocumented folks, the vast majority of here overstaying visas.”

But the majority of the people in the U.S. illegally didn’t overstay a visa, according to independent estimates.

February 2020 report written by Robert Warren of the Center for Migration Studies of New York estimated that, of the 10.6 million people in the U.S. illegally in 2018, “about 5.7 million (54 percent) entered across the border, and 4.9 million (46 percent) entered with a temporary visa and overstayed.”

The report does make the point that a majority of the unauthorized population who arrived between 2010 and 2018 originally came to the U.S. legally.

“Of those, 2.6 million (66 percent) overstayed their temporary visas, and 1.3 million (34 percent) entered illegally across the border,” it said.

Still, a spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute, Michelle Mittelstadt, similarly told us in a February email: “If you look at the overall unauthorized population, we believe that slightly more than half crossed a border illegally to get here. This is because the overall unauthorized population is a long settled one – we estimate that 60 percent have been in the U.S. a decade or more – as well as the fact that in earlier periods illegal entries outpaced visa overstays.”

Assault weapons ban ‘worked’

As he has in the past, Biden claimed the 10-year assault weapons ban that he helped shepherd through the Senate as part of the 1994 crime bill “worked” and should be restored. But as we wrote in March, the academic evidence isn’t clear about that.

Here’s what Biden said: “In the 1990s, we passed universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that hold 100 rounds that can be fired off in seconds. We beat the NRA. Mass shootings and gun violence declined. … But in the early 2000s, that law expired and we’ve seen the daily bloodshed since.”

Later in his speech, Biden said, “And we need a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. We’ve done it before, and it worked.”

Biden is referring to his work as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when he sponsored and largely shepherded the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law in 1994. That law, among other things, included an “assault weapons” ban, which prohibited the sale of certain semiautomatic firearms and large-capacity magazines that could accommodate 10 rounds or more. (Existing weapons on the banned list were “grandfathered,” meaning people could keep them.) A sunset provision, however, meant that the ban expired in 10 years, in 2004.

Biden’s mention of passing “universal background checks” refers to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required background checks for gun sales between licensed importers, manufacturers, or dealers and an unlicensed individual. Although Biden referred to it as “universal background checks,” that’s not what it was, at least not according to Biden’s use of the term in recent years. He has used the term to mean requiring background checks on “all gun sales with very limited exceptions, such as gifts between close family members” (as he put it on his presidential campaign website) — even those between private parties.

A RAND review of gun studies, updated in 2020, found there is “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings” and that “available evidence is inconclusive for the effect of assault weapon bans on total homicides and firearm homicides.”

“We don’t think there are great studies available yet to state the effectiveness of assault weapons bans,” Andrew Morral, a RAND senior behavioral scientist who led the project, told us in March. “That’s not to say they aren’t effective. The research we reviewed doesn’t provide compelling evidence one way or the other.”

There is more research, however, to back up Biden’s claim with regard to the second part of his proposal: banning large-capacity magazines. Growing evidence suggests that such a ban might reduce the number of those killed and injured in mass public shootings.

For example, research published in 2019 in Criminology & Public Policy by Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that while the assault weapons ban did not appear to have much of an effect on the number of mass public shootings (after controlling for population growth), the incidence and severity of mass public shootings, meaning the number killed and injured, has increased over the last decade, after the ban had expired.

Research published in Criminology & Public Policy in January 2020 concluded that assault weapons bans “do not seem to be associated with the incidence of fatal mass shootings.” However, state laws requiring handgun purchasers to obtain a license and state bans of large-capacity magazines did appear to be “associated with reductions in fatal mass shootings.”

In separate research also published in Criminology & Public Policy in January 2020, Christopher S. Koper, principal fellow of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, argues that the “most important provisions of assault weapons law” are restrictions on large-capacity magazines, because “they can produce broader reductions in the overall use of high-capacity semiautomatics that facilitate high-volume gunfire attacks.”

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