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Fact-checking President Trump’s claims on immigration

President Trump seemingly can't stop talking about immigration. But many of his most frequent claims are wrong. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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The president made it abundantly clear, intentionally or not, that March and April (and maybe even May) might as well be called “immigration month.” It wasn’t on the official schedule. Or worked out in great detail by White House staff. But the pending March 5 expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the actions of Oakland’s mayor, a “caravan” moving slowly through Mexico to the border with the United States and the omnibus spending bill catapulted immigration back into the national conversation and very much onto President Trump’s mind.

The trend was unmistakable as we updated our now-administration-long project tracking the president’s false or misleading claims. Before March and April, about 9 percent of Trump’s claims were on immigration every month. But in those two months, that number jumped to 16 percent. In other words, it nearly doubled.

There wasn’t a perfectly coordinated message — unlike during his previous policy pushes to overturn Obamacare (“Obamacare is dead”) and for tax cuts (“This is the biggest tax cut ever”). So, as a reader service, we compiled the president’s most repeated immigration-related claims. If we have previously fact-checked one of these claims, the Pinocchio rating is noted.

“And we’re trying to have a DACA victory for everybody, by the way. And the Democrats are nowhere to be found.” (March 7)

We at the Fact Checker tend not to wade into the typical tit-for-tat of political accusations. But Trump’s increasingly frequent claim that Democrats are uninterested in fixing DACA or unwilling to negotiate called for us to bend the rules. Like everything else, just because the claim is often repeated doesn’t make it true.

By our count, Democrats and bipartisan groups of lawmakers have offered the president no less than four bargains to fix DACA, a program that Trump terminated. Remember the days of “Chuck and Nancy”? Back in September, the two Democrats said the president had agreed to an outline of an immigration plan that did not include the border wall. That fell apart just over a month later when the White House outlined its very conservative priorities for a DACA deal.

Fast forward to January. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) collaborated to develop a bipartisan immigration plan that included a path to citizenship for dreamers, a shake-up of the visa program and a year of funding for Trump’s border wall. The senators thought they had a deal until they attended a meeting at the White House where they were blindsided by immigration hard-liners and the president’s comment about “s—hole countries.”

With the Graham-Durbin deal in tatters and the specter of a government shutdown looming, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) met the president for lunch. Schumer said he offered Trump upward of $20 billion to build a border wall in exchange for DACA. Trump declined, and the government shut down.

The government reopened when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to allow an immigration debate. In mid-February, a group of bipartisan senators offered a new compromise — complete with $25 billion for the border. The plan attracted 54 votes, including eight Republicans, but failed to overcome a filibuster after the White House pushed to stop it from being passed. The White House’s preferred path of action received even fewer votes, 39, with many Republicans voting against it.

Meanwhile, the March 5 expiration became meaningless when courts blocked Trump’s termination.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least 41 times.

“We need a wall. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, we need a wall. And it will stop your drug flow. It will knock the hell out of the drug flow.” (April 9)

This is a longtime favorite claim of the president’s, but it hasn’t gotten more accurate since the last time we looked into it. Most drugs do come into the United States across the southern border with Mexico. But a wall would not limit this illegal trade. The six main drug cartels use increasingly sophisticated methods to move product across the border, as much of it travels through legal borders — disguised as innocuous liquids or alongside other cargo — or under tunnels unaffected by any possible physical barrier.

Even if the wall could curb illicit drug trafficking, it would have a minimal impact on the death toll from drug abuse. Prescription drug overdoses claim more lives than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least 34 times. 

“California’s sanctuary policies are illegal and unconstitutional and put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk. Thousands of dangerous & violent criminal aliens are released as a result of sanctuary policies, set free to prey on innocent Americans. THIS MUST STOP!” (March 13)

President Trump has railed against sanctuary cities since the campaign. But they are neither “illegal” nor “unconstitutional.” There’s no official definition of “sanctuary,” but it generally refers to rules restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement can issue a request to be notified when a “criminal alien” is being released by state or local law enforcement so that they can take custody of the person in question while their immigration status is determined. But state and local law enforcement are under no legal obligation to tell ICE when someone is released and sometimes choose not to alert federal authorities to maintain trust with the community.

Do sanctuary policies lead to “dangerous & violent criminal aliens” being released to “prey” on Americans? Not much research exists, but the limited research that does challenges Trump’s claim. A handful of studies looked at whether there is a causation between sanctuary cities and crime. They either found no statistically significant impact of sanctuary policies on crime, or a reduction in crime due to immigrant-friendly policing strategies. Regardless, the idea that “thousands of dangerous & violent criminal aliens are released” just isn’t right. Many sanctuary jurisdictions do alert federal authorities when they believe an inmate is a public safety threat.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least 14 times. 

“We’ve started building the wall.” (April 3)

We’ve pointed this out before — the Trump administration has definitely not started building the wall. Trump sought $25 billion from Congress to build a southern border wall — but received only $1.6 billion. And that funding came with strings attached. It could not be spent on any of the concrete prototypes that Trump toured. Instead, it was designated for new fencing and maintenance on existing fencing — an effort that falls quite short of “building the wall” the president effusively promised.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least 13 times. 

“Our Border Laws are very weak while those of Mexico & Canada are very strong. Congress must change these Obama era, and other, laws NOW! The Democrats stand in our way – they want people to pour into our country unchecked….CRIME! We will be taking strong action today.” (April 4)

As for Mexico having “very strong border laws,” PolitiFact reported that the White House pointed to a 2010 Washington Times article as evidence — but the Mexican law was changed in 2011 to decriminalize the act of entering the country without documentation and to allow undocumented immigrants to use education and health services. Moreover, Mexico’s own southern border is much more porous than the U.S. southern border despite a number of efforts the country has taken to secure it.

Immigrant rights advocates argue the Obama administration was tough on illegal immigrants, even giving the former president the moniker “Deporter-in-chief.” In raw numbers, more illegal immigrants were deported under the Obama administration than any time previously, but that was in part because of a change in how deportations were counted. Regardless, there’s no reason to believe the Democrats are standing between the president and changing the U.S. immigration system. In fact, it’s more the opposite — they have offered at least four pieces of bipartisan legislation to remedy DACA and update the immigration system.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least five times.

“Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!”  (April 1) 

There’s no hard and fast definition, but “catch and release” usually refers to U.S. immigration authorities’ practice of releasing unauthorized immigrants while they await immigration hearings, rather than keeping them in custody. As we’ve previously explained, with some exceptions, only children and asylum seekers are eligible for this kind of release. They often stay in the United States for months or years while their cases wind through the courts. Many of them do not show up for court dates and end up settling in the country without authorization.

The practice originated during the Bush administration largely because there was not enough space to house all the people waiting for immigration hearings. A court case during the Clinton administration required the federal government to release undocumented children. It worked differently under Bush and Obama. So, the history shows catch and release is a collection of policies, court precedents, executive actions and federal statutes spanning more than 20 years, cobbled together throughout Democratic and Republican administrations, including the Trump administration. It’s safe to say the president can’t pin this on the Democrats.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least three times. 

“These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!” (April 1) 

This is a ridiculous statement. If immigrants were crossing the border for DACA, they would be gravely disappointed. The program has a slew of requirements but in this case one is most important: DACA is only available to illegal immigrants who have continuously resided in the United States since 2007, meaning anyone who just recently crossed into the United States would not be eligible for the program.

President Trump has repeated this claim at least twice. 

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Not the whole story
“And we’re trying to have a DACA victory for everybody, by the way. And the Democrats are nowhere to be found.”
in a speech
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Needs context
“Our Border Laws are very weak while those of Mexico & Canada are very strong. Congress must change these Obama era, and other, laws NOW! The Democrats stand in our way - they want people to pour into our country unchecked….CRIME! We will be taking strong action today.”
in a tweet
Wednesday, April 4, 2018