4 Pinocchios for Rep. Steve King’s claim on valedictorians and smugglers
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh a hundred and thirty pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling seventy-five pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act.”
--Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), interview with NewsMax, July 18, 2013
“You know, you only get one valedictorian per class per year. And they aren’t all dreamers. And a lot of other American kids out here that are competing for that valedictorian status. But every night there are dozens and scores of people that are smuggling drugs across our border. … This isn’t something that just was made up out of thin air. This is something I get from the people enforcing the law down on the border.”
--King, interview on CNN, July 24
“I got a call from them [border control agents] yesterday, and I said, ‘Did I need to come back down and refresh myself?’ They said, ‘No, you’re spot on with what you’re saying but maybe you got the weight ten pounds up.’”
--King, interview on Fox News, July 27
Despite being lambasted by top Republican officials for his initial “cantaloupe” remarks in a Newsmax interview, Rep. Steve King has stood his ground. He insists that for every child of an illegal immigrant who is a valedictorian, there are another hundred who are drug smugglers—a claim that he says was not “made up out of thin air.” In fact, he added, it “was probably understated.”
King’s claim is aimed at undercutting support for providing a pathway to citizenship for so-called “DREAMers,” people who came to the United States illegally as children. Under the proposed DREAM Act, people between the ages of 12 and 35 who came to the United States aged 15 and younger and meet a list of qualifications, as such obtaining a high school degree and having “good moral character,” can eventually become citizens.
He also asserted over the weekend that many of his Republican colleagues privately tell him that his facts are correct.
Here at The Fact Checker, we place the burden on politicians to provide evidence for incendiary claims. But King’s office has not responded to our queries—or to requests from our colleagues at PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, who have also tried to vet this claim.
But King has offered clues about why he believes in this claim, so let’s explore what we know. Does the math (one valedictorian to every 100 drug smugglers) even begin to add up?
King’s reference to valedictorians is likely a knock at the Democrats who highlighted one such case-- Benita Veliz of San Antonio—at last year’s Democratic National Convention. Veliz was the first undocumented immigrant who spoke at a national political convention.
King, incidentally, is wrong in saying that “you only get one valedictorian per class per year.” There’s actually a trend now in awarding many students with the coveted title, including more than 100 at some schools or even more than 10 percent of the class.
But this points out a basic fallacy in King’s claim. He is comparing one number against another. The first figure is for valedictorians. But as far as we know, there is no figure for the number of valedictorians in any given year—let alone the number of “DREAMer” valedictorians. So it’s hard to do the math if you are missing one part of the equation (the “1”).
But the second part—the 100 who are drug smugglers—is even more problematic. The only evidence that King has submitted for this claim is an Associated Press article that he inserted in the Congressional Record on July 24. We’re not sure if King read this article very closely, because it undercuts his assertion.
Here are some of the facts in the article:
■“Between 2008 and 2011, the number of youths aged 14 to 18 caught trying to cross the border between Tijuana and San Diego to sell drugs has grown tenfold.”
■“The number of youths 18 and younger detained for drug-related crimes in Mexico has climbed from 482 in 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his offensive against drug traffickers, to 810 by 2009.”
Interestingly, King seemed to echo those facts when he was interviewed on CNN: “We’re seeing that the numbers of those arrested have grown a multiple of 10 times over the last year and a half or so, and in Mexico, there are the multiples also, 800 to 900 a year in Mexico arrested smuggling drugs and for drug-related crimes.”
But here’s the problem: The article is talking about Mexican youth, not undocumented youth living in the United States. These facts have nothing to do with King’s initial assertion. The only American connection in the article is a reference to Edgar Jimenez Lugo, known as “El Ponchis,” who was arrested at age 14 on charges related to four drug-related murders. But Lugo was actually born a U.S. citizen, and then was mostly raised in Mexico. He is the opposite of a “DREAMer”—someone born in another country but raised in the United States.
Indeed, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that four out of five arrests for drug smuggling involve U.S. citizens, which also would exclude “DREAMers.” (Note to King: these people were generally caught driving a car or truck; few people these days seem to haul marijuana over the desert by foot, cantaloupe calves or not).
Okay, you get the picture. There’s no way to substantiate the other part of the equation either.
In fact, King’s fact says much less than he thinks it does. Estimates suggest that there might be about 2 million people who could eventually be eligible under the DREAM Act, almost evenly split between men and women. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that 1,000 (1/20th of one percent) are valedictorians. That would mean King assumes 100,000–or one-tenth of all “DREAMers” or about 20 percent of the men—are drug smugglers.
But the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration group, cites a 2007 study that found that “for every ethnic group, without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated. This holds especially true for the Mexicans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the unauthorized population.”
Alternatively, maybe there are only five valedictorians, so there would be 500 smugglers—which tells you little out of a population of 2 million people.
Even King seems to realize the numbers don’t add up. In his CNN interview, King tried to back off the ratio, while at the same time asserting he was still right.
“I wasn’t talking about the ratio. Border Patrol agents don’t know how many valedictorians we have that are also ‘DREAMers.’ In fact, I don’t know that the public knows either,” he said. “But I can tell you it’s not nearly as many as the advocates for the DREAM Act would like to have you believe.”
Of course, he offered no evidence for why the percentage of valedictorians among “DREAMers” would be any less than in the general population.
The Pinocchio Test
King’s claim about valedictorians and smugglers is a nonsense fact, designed to suggest an aura of authenticity to an otherwise objectionable statement. It appears King heard something, from someone he has not named, and had blown it into “facts” for which he feels little need to provide evidence.
We would certainly revisit this issue if King supplies us with additional material to bolster his claim. If a politician is going to say stuff like this, he or she has to be prepared to back it up with actual facts.
Otherwise the claim has as much authority as the number 57 in the classic movie, “The Manchurian Candidate.” For readers unfamiliar with the reference, that’s when the number of alleged “card-carrying communists” in the Defense Department was determined by the “57” on a Heinz Ketchup bottle.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker