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Fact Check: Tillis said most Americans want to keep Title 42 border rules. Was he right?

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Committee.
Gage Skidmore
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Committee.

In this week's fact check of North Carolina politics, we’re looking at a claim made by Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis regarding the COVID-19-related immigration policy known as Title 42. The Biden administration recently said it plans to end the policy, which was enacted by former President Trump at the beginning of the pandemic.

In a news release from fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Tillis is quoted as saying “most Americans favor keeping Title 42 in place.” To find out if that’s true, WFAE's Marshall Terry turned to Paul Specht of WRAL.

Marshall Terry: OK, Paul, so let's start with the policy itself. What is Title 42?

Paul Specht: Title 42 is is a public health law that allows border officials to turn away more people without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. It's basically a tool that each executive has that they can use to sort of just prevent a pandemic from getting worse, and it was implemented by President Trump, obviously, when the coronavirus pandemic started. It's still there today, but President Biden has said he will lift it on May 23.

Terry: So, Tillis said that most Americans are in favor of keeping Title 42 in place. Is that true?

Specht: It's not definitive. And what I mean by that is there's just not a lot of information out there. Tillis, his office, based their claim on a poll by Morning Consult and Politico that was released earlier this month. They surveyed 2,000 registered voters, and they found that 56% of respondents opposed the decision to remove Title 42.

There's also another poll — that Tillis obviously did not mention — by an immigration group called the National Immigration Law Center Justice Fund.

They surveyed 800 likely voters and found that 52% want to revoke Title 42. So, we have these two polls, both sort of straddling the line of 50% support, 50% opposed. And so obviously, the poll Tillis cited surveyed more people, so he has that going for him. But there's not a clear-cut answer here.

Terry: As part of your reporting, you spoke to a few polling experts who said they actually had concerns over the way the question was asked in these polls that you have mentioned. How was it asked? And what was their concern?

Specht: That's right. There are certain ways that you can ask questions that are better at getting to the heart of an issue than others. In the case of the Morning Consult poll, they mention Trump, and they mention Biden. The question says, "As you may know, the Trump administration implemented border controls at the U.S.-Mexico border in March 2020 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

These controls allowed border officials to quickly expel migrants seeking to enter the U.S. for protection. The Biden administration will remove these border controls on May 23. Do you support or oppose the Biden administration removing these border controls?" That's the full question, and the experts I spoke with — I spoke with three different ones — all said there's an immediate problem with mentioning Trump and Biden, because when people hear their names, they tend to go into tribal mode like, "Oh, well, I oppose what Biden's doing" or, "I oppose what Trump did." And then you don't get a clear, pure answer or opinion on what Title 42 actually does.

In other words, it sort of taints our results. They had concerns with the other poll, too — the one that the pro-immigration rights group did. It did not mention Trump and Biden in its question. However, the experts noticed that it had more women than men, and they didn't have any sort of qualifying question like, "How much do you know about Title 42?" So, with both of these polls, they're asking questions of survey-takers and not giving them any sort of background or measuring how much knowledge they come to the table with when they're even asked about Title 42.

And that's sort of a problem. We don't really know what they come into the survey knowing, and we don't know what's influencing their answers to these questions. In the case of Morning Consult, it could be their strong feelings for the president or past president.

Terry: You know, we always hear about political and election-related polls these days. Just how trustworthy are they in general?

Specht: Well, that's a good question. I can't speak to every poll. Whenever I see a poll, I go to FiveThirtyEight.com. They track polling companies and give them a grade for how reliable they are. And that's based on what methodology they use, whether they're somehow influenced by either political party.

The Morning Consult poll, for instance: Morning Consult has a B rating, and it's pretty good. There are other companies, certainly, that are tracked that have C and D ratings. I couldn't find a rating for the pro-immigration group. but backing up to the big picture, again: You almost never want to make a sweeping claim about what Americans think based on one single poll. Experts say you look at trends, and so that definitely played a role in our rating here.

Terry: And how did you rate this claim by Sen. Thom Tillis?

Specht: We rated it half-true. Remember, Tillis said most Americans favor keeping Title 42 in place. It's a very definitive statement that he put in a press release, but he based it on one poll, and even that poll is flawed, according to the experts we spoke with. And there's another poll that suggests, Hey, a majority of Americans may want to lift Title 42. So, he can stake his claim on one thing, and there's some evidence that it might be true, but we just don't have enough data to make a claim that definitive yet.

Terry: All right. Thanks, Paul. Thank you.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.