White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the actions that led to a 5-year-old boy being detained at a U.S. airport for hours following President Trump's immigration ban. (Reuters)

“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning.”
— President Trump, tweet, Jan, 30, 2017

“Remember we’re talking about a universe of 109 people. There were 325,000 people that came into this country over a 24 hour period from another country. 109 of them were stopped for additional screening.”
— White House press secretary Sean Spicer, press briefing, Jan. 30, 2017

President Trump and his aides love to cite a small number and a big number in order to minimize the impact of the president’s executive order suspending the visas of citizens of seven countries.

But these figures are incredibly misleading, so let’s go through the math.

The Facts

First of all, the “325,000” figure is pretty meaningless because the number of people who arrive in the United States on a given day isn’t the issue. The question is how many people from these countries have been affected.

The “109” number is old and rather dubious. For instance, it does not reflect how many people were prevented from even boarding a plane. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 348 people were denied boarding from the issuance of the executive order on Friday through 6 p.m. on Sunday. [Update: as of Feb. 1, the number had climbed to 940.]

[Update: At a press briefing on Jan. 31, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer admitted the “109" figure only referred to people who were traveling at the time the order was signed. So, in other words, both Trump’s tweet and Spicer’s original statement was false.]

An additional 392 green-card holders have been processed and admitted to the United States, the agency says. Originally, the White House had said that green-card holders would also be blocked from entering, but it reversed itself on Sunday under political pressure. [Update: as of Feb. 1, the number of waivers had passed 1,600.]

Officials have not responded to repeated requests for an updated number on the number of people detained at U.S. airports. However, the Daily Beast reported that an additional 200 to 250 people were denied entry once their flights landed — and they were part of a larger pool of 735 people at ports of entry who could have been barred from entering the United States.

A Google spreadsheet tracking the experience of Iranian travelers has documented the travails of nearly 300 people, with many describing significant delays or negotiation even if they were allowed into the United States.

But all of these numbers fail to provide the full picture. The real number is about 90,000.


According to State Department statistics, that’s how many people received either nonimmigrant or immigrant visas from the seven affected countries in fiscal year 2015. That’s the most recent data available, and different types of visas (such as student, business and tourism visas) are available for different lengths of time, but the figure serves as a usable proxy for the likely universe of people affected by Trump’s travel ban.

(Moreover, the data does not include potentially tens of thousands of people who are dual-citizens, such as Dutch-Iranians or German-Iraqis, who also are impacted by the order. The administration appears to have carved out exceptions for dual-nationals from the United Kingdom and Canada, but not other countries.)

[Update, Feb. 3: The State Department announced it had calculated the number of valid 2016 visas that would be affected by the executive order was “fewer than 60,000." We had originally sought this figure but were told it was not available and that the 2015 fiscal year figure was the best number available. The 60,000 number was calculated by removing some visas not impacted by order, such as diplomatic passports, but the main reason for for the reduction is that time period has been shortened and so expired visas have been removed. This figure does not include dual-nationals. It may also include some green-card holders.]

The executive order means that visa holders will not be able to travel to the United States for at least 90 days. Or, if they are in the United States currently, they will not be able to leave and assume that they can return before the travel suspension ends.

Here’s the breakdown by country:

Iran: 35,363 nonimmigrant visas, 7,179 immigrant visas
Iraq: 13,499 nonimmigrant visas, 2,010 immigrant visas
Syria: 10,061 nonimmigrant visas, 1,901 immigrant visas
Sudan: 5,080 nonimmigrant visas, 1,642 immigrant visas
Yemen: 4,525 nonimmigrant visas, 3,143 immigrant visas
Libya: 3,303 nonimmigrant visa, 272 immigrant visas
Somalia: 331 nonimmigrant visas, 1,078 immigrant visas

The Pinocchio Test

The Trump White House’s figures on the scope of the travel ban are ludicrously low. The universe of people likely affected by the travel suspension is around 90,000 — not 109. [Update: the State Department now says 60,000.] The White House should also not use the overall daily number of travelers as a comparison.

Four Pinocchios

 


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“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning.”
in a tweet
Monday, January 30, 2017