April 21, 2019
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Your fact-checking cheat sheet for Trump’s immigration address

Alex Brandon | AP
Alex Brandon | AP
President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House as he walks from Marine One, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Washington. Trump returned from a trip to Camp David.

President Donald Trump will be speaking from the Oval Office tonight to make the case for $5.7 billion to start building a wall along the southern U.S. border – the crux of a funding impasse with Congress that has led to a partial government shutdown.

We already have a pretty good sense of the claims he will make – as the president and his aides have been using them for weeks.

Here’s a guide to 20 possible assertions the president will make tonight.

–The situation along our southern border is a national crisis.

By any available measure, there is no new crisis at the border.

Apprehensions of people trying to cross the southern border peaked most recently at 1.6 million in 2000 and have been in decline since, partly because of technology upgrades, tougher penalties post-9/11, a decline in migration rates from Mexico and a sharp rise in the number of Border Patrol officers.

Customs and Border Protection reported 303,916 apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border for fiscal 2017, the lowest in more than 45 years. In fiscal 2018, apprehensions increased to 396,579, but that was less than half the total of 2007.

There are far more cases of travelers overstaying their visas than southwest border apprehensions. In fiscal 2016, U.S. officials reported 408,870 southwest border apprehensions and 544,676 suspected in-country overstays. For fiscal 2017, the Department of Homeland Security reported 606,926 suspected in-country overstays, or twice the number of southwest border apprehensions.

–The wall will be paid for by the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal.

This is a Four-Pinocchio (whopper-sized) claim. During the campaign, Trump more than 200 times promised Mexico would pay for the wall, which the administration says would cost at least $18 billion. Now he says the minor working of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will earn enough money for pay for the wall. This betrays a misunderstanding of economics. Countries do not “lose” money on trade deficits, so there is no money to earn; the size of a trade deficit or surplus can be determined by other factors besides trade. Congress must still appropriate the money, and the trade agreement has not been ratified.

–I have already started building the wall.

No, Trump has not started building the wall. Congress only appropriated money for bollard fencing, replacement fencing or secondary fencing. Trump often refers to a wall that was started in California, but that is simply bollard fencing that has been planned in 2009. This is a Bottomless Pinocchio claim. (These claims must have received Three or Four Pinocchios previously, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times.)

–The wall will be built by good old American steel companies that were practically out of business.

Trump often hypes the impact of his steel tariffs on the steel business. Steel companies were not practically out of business. U.S. Steel has restarted some blast furnaces and its profits and revenue initially went up, but steel stocks have plunged in recent months as worldwide steel prices have fallen, led by a decline in steel prices in China. Barron’s reports that of the 13 stocks in the steel subindex of the Standard & Poor’s 1500 composite, all but one are down year to date by an average of nearly 25 percent. Moreover, even with the domestic steel mills running at 80 percent capacity, the United States needs to important 30 million tons of steel, Barron’s said.

Where would that steel come from? Currently, 50 percent comes from Canada, Brazil and South Korea. Mexico and Russia supply 9 percent each.

–I never said it would be a concrete wall.

Au contraire. Trump has said it repeatedly: On Dec 31, he tweeted: “An all-concrete wall was NEVER ABANDONED.”

–The wall in Israel is 99.9 percent effective.

Only one-tenth (33 miles) of the Israeli barrier with Palestinian territories is an eight-meter (25-foot) concrete wall. The other 90 percent is a two-meter (six-foot) high electronic fence. As for 99.9 percent, these numbers are a fantasy. The New York Times in 2016 reported on a vast smuggling industry that easily evades the Israeli security fence and wall that divides Israeli and Palestinian areas.

–U.S. officials have blocked nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from entering the country.

The Trump administration often points to the 3,755 known or suspected terrorists who were blocked by the Department of Homeland Security from entering the United States in fiscal 2017. We gave Four Pinocchios to the administration when officials repurposed this figure to claim “10 terrorists a day” are trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

The problem with this talking point is that the administration has not said how many of these 3,755 individuals tried to cross through the border, as opposed to airports or by sea.

The most that DHS officials will concede is that “most of these individuals are trying to enter the U.S. by air, but we must also be focused on stopping those who try to get in by land.”

According to the State Department, at the end of 2017, “there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.” The report added, “The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”

DHS data show that most individuals on the terrorist watch list – a different statistic than encounters with known or suspected terrorists – attempt to enter by air. Most of the 2,554 people on the terrorist watch list who were encountered by U.S. officials in 2017 tried to enter through airports (2,170) or by sea (49).

“There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center for the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, wrote on Just Security. “It simply isn’t true.”

He wrote:

“Here is ground truth on this issue. Terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida and ISIS spend time talking about, brainstorming and even fantasizing about ways in which they can do harm to the United State. At times, those conversations have certainly included discussion of ways in which terrorist operatives might be inserted into the Homeland. But we also knew from intelligence reporting that terrorist groups have very high regard for our Homeland Security capabilities, including our border security. They know we had become a much “harder” target than at the time of 9/11 and that getting their operatives into the United States is an extremely challenging proposition.

“In part, that’s why terrorist groups pivoted in recent years to a different business model. Rather than focusing on trying to insert a terrorist operative from abroad, it has proven to be far easier for an organization like ISIS or al-Qaida to inspire or motivate an individual already inside the United States to act on their behalf. That change has left us with the threat condition that prevails today, in which the greatest terrorism threat we face is from what we call Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs) – in most cases individuals who were either born here or have lived here for most of their adult lives.”

–There have been nearly 3,000 special-interest aliens who have been stopped at the border.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also has been making the case for a border wall by mentioning “special interest aliens,” which is not the same as “known or suspected terrorists.” (Trump tends to say “terrorists,” but Nielsen is more careful.)

This figure requires context. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were 3,028 special interest aliens crossing through the southern border in fiscal year 2017.

But a “special interest alien” is not necessarily a terrorist, and DHS has given no breakdown of how many of the 3,028 individuals have ties to terrorism.

An assistant homeland security secretary in the Obama administration testified to Congress in 2016 that “the majority of individuals that are traveling, be they from special interest alien countries or other places, we found the large majority of these individuals are actually fleeing violence from other parts of the world.”

According to DHS: “Often these are individuals who have obtained false documents, or used smugglers to evade security across multiple countries. In addition, some have engaged in criminal activity that could pose a danger to the United States, and some are found to have links to terrorism after additional investigative work and analysis by CBP personnel.”

Sounds scary, until you dig a little deeper.

“Zero people were murdered or injured in terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil by special interest aliens who entered illegally from 1975 through the end of 2017,” according to the libertarian Cato Institute. “However, seven special interest aliens who initially entered illegally have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. They all entered illegally from Canada or jumped ship in American ports before the list of special interest countries even existed. None of them successfully carried out their attacks and none illegally crossed the Mexican border.”

–The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at the southern border has increased over the past two years.

Without minimizing the potential threat, this claim should be taken with a heavy dose of salt, because it’s impossible to compare her numbers. Did it increase from three to five, or 100 to 150? There’s no indication whatsoever. As noted above, the State Department says there’s no credible information that terrorists have tried to enter through the southern border.

Being on the terrorist watch list does not necessarily mean you’re a terrorist, as the late-Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would attest.

–In the last year, 17,000 adults with criminal records have been arrested by border agents

This is misleading. In the 11-month period through August 2018, CBP officials encountered 16,831 people convicted of crimes in the United States or abroad, but 63 percent of them showed up at ports of entry. That covers airports and maritime routes, not just land crossings.

Furthermore, the number includes a mix of violent and nonviolent offenses. A CBP breakdown shows that 46.5 percent of all the convictions (not arrests) were for illegal entry or reentry.

–In the past two years, ICE has arrested 235,000 aliens on criminal charges or convictions.

It’s important to keep in mind that this figure includes all types of crimes, including nonviolent offenses such as illegal entry or reentry.

In fiscal 2018, ICE conducted 158,581 administrative arrests for civil immigration violations. The agency’s year-end report says 105,140 of those (66 percent) involved people with criminal convictions and 32,977 with pending criminal charges. Of the 143,470 administrative arrests in 2017, 74 percent involved people with criminal records and 15.5 percent who had pending charges.

But these totals cover all types of offenses, including illegal entry or reentry. ICE does not break down arrests by type of crime.

–We are now averaging 60,000 illegal and inadmissible aliens a month on the southern border

The numbers add up, but “inadmissible aliens” are not illegal immigrants. It’s a designation for people who are turned back at legal ports of entry or apply for asylum.

“Inadmissibles refers to individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws, and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe,” according to CBP. All of this is legal.

Using only the number for southwest border apprehensions in fiscal 2018, the average is roughly 30,000 a month, or half of 60,000.

–Last month, more than 20,000 minors were smuggled in the United States

Reports have suggested that some minors from Central America are coming to the U.S. border with adults who are not their parents. But the number of suspected cases of fraudulent parentage is fraction of the overall number of family units apprehended. The Washington Post reported, between April 19, when the trend was first suspected, and Sept. 30, the end of the 2018 fiscal year, CBP agents separated 170 families after determining that the child and adult traveling together were not related. That equals about a 0.25 percent of all family units apprehended.

Plus, Customs and Border Protection reports just over 20,000 family units – not minors – were apprehended at the southern border in both November and December 2018. A family unit is defined by CPB as a minor apprehended with at least one family member.

–The immigration court backlog is nearly 800,000 cases.

There are 775,510 pending immigration cases in the United States as of November 2018, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). That’s a record high and an increase from 735,739 in fiscal year 2018 and 594,959 in fiscal year 2019. The problem has been exacerbated in recent weeks because the government shutdown has closed the immigration courts.

But TRAC says the number is actually nearly 1.1 million because the Trump administration recently removed 330,211 previously completed cases and put them back on the “pending” rolls. “The transfer of administratively closed cases to the pending workload makes digging out all the more daunting,” TRAC said in a report. “At the same time, according to the judges, the new policy that does away with their ability to administratively close cases has reduced their tools for managing their dockets.”

So essentially the case load has doubled during the Trump administration.

–6,000 gang members, including MS-13, have been deported by ICE

ICE deported 5,872 gang members in fiscal year 2018, but there’s no breakdown of how many were members of the violent gang MS-13. And in some cases, ICE mistakenly applies a “gang member” label on people who are not actually affiliated with gangs.

As we’ve reported, Trump’s crackdown on MS-13 has had a measurable impact. But the bottom line is that we’re talking about hundreds of MS-13 members being imprisoned or deported on his watch, not thousands.

–There has been a 2,000 percent increase in asylum claims over the past five years, with the largest growth coming from Central America.

If the president brings up asylum claims, it’s irrelevant to the question of a border wall. Anyone may arrive at any port of entry at the United States and request asylum, and then his or her case would be adjudicated. A border wall would not prevent people from requesting asylum. Any border wall would likely be built a few miles inland from the border, so anyone could approach the wall and be on U.S. territory, allowing them to legally make a request.

–Staggering numbers of sick people are crossing the border each day

This is an age-old Trumpian claim that has been debunked time and time again. During the 2016 campaign, he claimed illegal immigrants were bringing “tremendous” disease.

But the World Health Organization found that, “in spite of the common perception of an association between migration and importation of infectious diseases, there is no systemic association.” Rather, there’s more risk of disease spreading from business travelers or tourists than migrants. This is partly just a numbers game – migrants at the southern border make up a small proportion of all the people entering the United States on a given day. Plus, anyone seeking asylum in the United States undergoes a medical screening and examination to identify inadmissible health conditions. They also are required to meet U.S. immunization requirements before they apply for permanent U.S. residence.

–300 Americans are killed every week from heroin, 90 percent of which floods across our southern border

In 2017, more than 15,000 people died from drug overdoses involving heroin in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That works out to about 300 a week.

But while 90 percent of the heroin sold in the United States comes from Mexico, virtually all of it comes through legal points of entry. “A small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry (POEs),” the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2018 report. So Trump’s wall would do little to halt drug trafficking. Trump’s repeated claim that the wall would stop drug trafficking is another Bottomless Pinocchio claim.

–Illegal traffic is down in sectors with border barriers

During a contentious meeting with then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Dec. 11, the president argued for the wall by claiming that sectors with barriers have seen a big reduction in border apprehensions.

“If you look at San Diego, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent once the wall was up,” Trump said. “El Paso, illegal traffic dropped 72 percent, then ultimately 95 percent once the wall was up. In Tucson, Arizona, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent. Yuma, it dropped illegal traffic 95 to 96 percent.”

But the rub here is very simple: These numbers are down everywhere along the border – in sectors with barriers or fencing, and in sectors without them. From 2000 to 2017, southwest border apprehensions declined 81.5 percent overall. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the San Diego fence Trump mentioned, by itself, “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border.”

–The president can declare a national emergency and have the military build the wall

This option most likely would throw a wrench into the U.S. military’s plans.

The Washington Post reported that “the law that authorizes the defense secretary to order military building projects in the event of a national emergency requires the Pentagon to draw upon funds that Congress has already appropriated for military construction.”

“According to a congressional aide, there is about $10 billion left in unobligated funds for military construction in the current fiscal year’s defense budget, in addition to some $13 billion that has rolled over from previous years. The money, however, has been appropriated for specific projects. This aide, and another one, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

“The Pentagon’s leadership would be forced to decide which of the projects in various stages of completion should see their funds diverted or cut, according to the congressional aide and a defense official. The sorts of projects underway include child-care centers on bases and weapons-range complexes. Any decision to delay or scrap military construction projects on the home front could rankle local congressional delegations and cause political pain for lawmakers.”

 



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