Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks with San Diego Sector Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott next to a section of the border fence fortified with razor wire on Nov. 20, 2018, in San Diego. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Under the heading of his regular column, “Washington Secrets,” the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard on Tuesday revealed one of the most secretive stories in Washington: a public statement from the Department of Homeland Security about the purported threat of human smuggling.

Homeland Security has occasionally come back to the idea that there is an epidemic of children being moved across the border by people who are not their parents, an effort by those adults to be treated as parents upon reaching the United States. The apparent hope is that, because there are limits on detaining children, those adults and their “children” will be released into the country.

On Monday, President Trump claimed that there was even a name for such people: “grabbers,” because they will “grab a child because they think they’ll have a certain status by having a child.”

The statement published by Bedard appears to be aimed at bolstering this idea.

“In response to the misreporting from multiple outlets, I wanted to highlight the rampant fraud taking place at our Southern border,” the department’s Katie Waldman said in the statement. She continued: “Over the last two years, we have seen a 110 percent increase in male adults showing up at the border with minors. Further from April 19, 2018 to September 30, 2018, 507 aliens were encountered as a family unit and were separated as they were not a legitimate family unit.”

“This data does not show nor does DHS assert that all minors apprehended as part of a family unit are illegitimate, but it does indicate that there is a significant problem that provides DHS the needed authority to protect the best interests and welfare of all children,” the statement said.

We’ve been through this before. In June, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisted that there had been a 314 percent increase in the number of adults who showed up at the southern U.S. border with a child who wasn’t their own. Then, as now, the figures are misleading — and in no way suggest “a significant problem” of adults trying to smuggle children who aren’t their own across the border.

When Trump first took office, the number of families apprehended at the border (often because they turned themselves in to seek asylum) plunged. Over time, though, the number slowly increased. In September, more family units were apprehended than at any point in Trump’s presidency.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

But you’ll quickly notice that the scale of those apprehensions dwarfs the problem alleged in that statement from DHS.

Including the data the department shared with The Washington Post in June, there are three periods for which we have information on the number of allegedly fraudulent family units that have appeared at the border. The first is fiscal 2017, spanning October 2016 to September 2017. The second is early in fiscal 2018, from October 2017 to February 2018. The third, the one in the statement reported by Bedard, is the last six months of fiscal 2018.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

So how many fraudulent family units are there? In June, DHS told us that there had been 46 in fiscal 2017 and 191 in the first five months of fiscal 2018. That was the basis of the 314 percent increase: 191 is more than four times 46.

Those figures represented “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units,” according to the department. Nielsen, in a speech, was more sweeping.

“Those are traffickers, those are smugglers, that is MS-13, those are criminals, those are abusers,” she said.

The equivalent figure in the period Bedard reported on is not the “507 aliens were encountered as a family unit” who were “separated as they were not a legitimate family unit.” A number of the family units were determined to include people who were older than 18 and therefore not children, meaning they didn’t meet the definition of a family unit. Others, 170 in total, were “separated based on no family relation” — meaning they apparently met the same standard as the 191 family units reported in June.

Notice what the department did. Because family units necessarily include more than one person, the department tallied everyone involved in the family unit, instead of simply reporting the number of units themselves, as it had in the past. Regardless, the apples-to-apples comparison appears to be that 170-unit figure.

The data, then, looks like this.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

In other words, the number of fraudulent (to use DHS’s term) family units under the same standard offered in June appears to have actually been lower over the past six months than in the first five months of the fiscal year. That despite more than twice as many family units being apprehended!

Only a small fraction of the total family units apprehended at the border include family units that didn’t meet the department’s standard.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

There are two things that seem to be revealed by this statement from DHS. The first is that family units that include non-related people — which in itself doesn’t necessarily imply any nefarious intent — is only a tiny fraction of the total number of families apprehended at the border. The second is that the figure appears to have gone down over the course of fiscal 2018.

That, I guess, was the secret buried in Bedard’s column.