FACT CHECK: Have 7 Million Illegal Immigrants Received Free Cell Phones And Airline Tickets At The Border?

Anna Mock | Fact Check Reporter

Republican Miami, Florida Mayor Francis Suarez claimed 7 million illegal immigrants have received free cell phones and airline tickets during a speech at Turning Point Action Conference on July 16. 

Verdict: Misleading

The claim is missing context. The cell phones being distributed do not function regularly, but instead are used to track their user’s location. Flights are used for deportation, but can also be used for resettlement or for transporting migrant children.

Fact Check:

Suarez, 45, entered the race for Republican presidential nomination in June 2023, according to The Guardian. He has been offering $20 gift cards to convince people to donate as little as $1 to his campaign following another advertisement for a donor to win a year’s tuition to any American college of their choosing, Newsweek reports.

Suarez claimed 7 million illegal immigrants have received free cellphones and airline tickets during a speech at Turning Point Action Conference on July 16. During the speech, the Presidential hopeful contrasts the fentanyl crisis with his claim.

“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.

This claim is misleading, however. 7 million encounters were recorded between fiscal years January 2021 and June 2023, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. Fiscal year 2021 includes one month under former President Donald Trump’s administration. This number does not reflect the total number of immigrants stopped, as one person can cross the border multiple times.

While it’s true that the government is loaning out phones to migrants, they can only be used to track their user’s whereabouts and cannot make calls or access the internet, according to CNN. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) implemented this in 2018 during the Trump administration, according to Time Magazine

“More recently ICE has also been using a smart phone app, the BI SmartLink app, to track people and to use for check-ins,” Niels Frenzen, an expert on U.S. immigration law, told Check Your Fact in an email. “If a noncitizen does not have a personal cell phone for the BI SmartLink app, the noncitizen can be provided with a cell phone for purposes of using the SmartLink app.  The cell phone is not a regular cell phone.”

Although ICE does pay for flights for illegal immigrants, these are mainly used for deportation, according to AP News. “IAO facilitates the transportation and removal of noncitizens via commercial flights; and since 2006, it has transferred and/or removed hundreds of thousands of noncitizens using air charter services,” the ICE website reads.

Children who are unaccompanied when they arrive at the border are usually transported by plane to federally licensed shelters before being released to family, according to The New York Times. The article indicates these flights are routine and usually operate under ICE at multiple points during the day.

“Re[garding] the plane tickets, ICE and CBP have the ability to move noncitizens by bus and plane who are in custody to different detention facilities for processing, but I am unaware of ICE or CBP paying for commercial plane tickets,” Frenzen said.

Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, told Politifact 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. The list includes Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Refugee Council USA.

Florida officials previously admitted that the state had organized charter flights of migrants to the state of California, where officials there claimed laws were broken, according to CBS. In September 2022, asylum seekers in Texas were flown to Martha’s Vineyard, though Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appeared to be unaware of the flights, The New York Times reported.

Check Your Fact has reached out to Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE and Suarez’s campaign for comment and will update this piece accordingly if one is received from any of these sources.

Anna Mock

Fact Check Reporter