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Trump’s false claim that Obama had the same family separation policy

Administration officials have pointed to "the law" as the reason why undocumented children are being separated from their parents. But there's no such law. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Obama separated . . . . . . . . children from parents, as did Bush etc., because that is the policy and law. I tried to keep them together but the problem is, when you do that, vast numbers of additional people storm the Border. So with Obama seperation is fine, but with Trump it’s not. Fake 60 Minutes!”

— President Trump, in a pair of tweets, Nov. 25, 2018

“Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries.”

— Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 26, 2018

“They had to use [tear gas on migrants at the border] because they were being rushed by some very tough people. And they used tear gas.”

— Trump, remarks at the White House, Nov. 26, 2018

It’s not the first time Trump tries to minimize the scope of his family separations at the border by claiming that President Barack Obama had the same policy. This claim and its variations have been roundly debunked. We gave them Four Pinocchios in June. But they’re back now, and so are we.

Trump also claimed without evidence again that “criminals” are part of the migrant caravans traveling from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration over the past month has tried to cobble together proof of Trump’s claim. It has almost nothing but supposition to show the public. Many of the caravan members are women and children fleeing violence in their home countries or seeking economic opportunity in the United States. They hardly fit Trump’s description of “very tough people” rushing the border.

The Facts

There is simply no comparison between Trump’s family separation policy and the border enforcement actions taken by the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. (After a public outcry, Trump in late June signed an executive order to end family separations.)

Obama had guidelines that prioritized the deportation of gang members, national security risks and felons. Once he took office, Trump issued an executive order rolling back much of that framework and scrapping the priority list. Trump’s January 2017 order refers only to “criminal offenses,” which is broad enough to encompass serious felonies and misdemeanors.

But the key difference here is that in April, the Justice Department rolled out a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults caught crossing the border illegally. As a result of this and the Department of Homeland Security’s decision in May to refer all illegal-crossing cases to federal prosecutors, families apprehended at the border were systematically separated. The reason is simple: Children can’t be prosecuted with their parents.

This is worlds apart from the Obama- and Bush-era policy of separating children from adults at the border only in limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or another kind of danger to the child, or when false claims of parentage were made.

“The biggest difference really is the difference between a policy that is targeted and tailored to protect a child and a policy which essentially uses children as a way to punish the parents or to deter them from doing the thing that we don’t want them to do,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who oversaw immigration as director of Obama’s domestic policy council. “The scale as a result is very different and the impact is very different.”

When DHS presented family separations as one of several options to the Obama administration, it was immediately rejected as “immoral,” she added. Morality questions aside, the proposal would have been a costly “logistical nightmare” for DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with resettling separated or unaccompanied children at the border, Muñoz said.

Responding to questions for a previous fact check, a DHS spokeswoman sent figures from fiscal 2010 through 2016 showing that, of 2,362,966 adults apprehended at the southern border, 492,970, or 21 percent, were referred for prosecution. These figures include all adults, not just those who crossed with minor children, so they’re not a measure of how many families were separated under Obama.

For this fact check, we asked the White House whether it had a breakdown of these numbers that supports the Obama-Trump comparison on family separations. We didn’t get a response. No government agency or outside group appears to have data on family separations under Bush or Obama.

“During the Obama administration, there was no policy in place that resulted in the systematic separation of families at the border, like we are now seeing under the Trump administration,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told us in June. “Our understanding is that generally parents were not prosecuted for illegal entry under President Obama. There may have been some separation if there was suspicion that the children were being trafficked or a claimed parent-child relationship did not actually exist. But nothing like the levels we are seeing today.”

U.S. authorities fired tear gas at members of a Central American migrant caravan who had rushed the fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico on Nov. 25. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/The Washington Post)

We don’t know which parts of “60 Minutes” got Trump tweeting. The program’s reporting about the workings of the “zero tolerance” policy matches our own at The Fact Checker. (See here and here.)

The news program also reported on an uncensored DHS document it obtained: The “document reveals that child separation began nine months earlier than the administration acknowledged. There was a pilot program in the busy ‘El Paso sector’ from ‘July to November 2017.’ We don’t know how many children were taken in those five months.” But this is unrelated to Trump’s assertion that the Obama and Bush administrations separated families.

As for Trump’s claim about “the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals,” we’ve looked into it repeatedly (see here, here and here). The Trump administration has offered no proof of criminals traveling with the caravan. The most that can be said is that any crowd of 7,000 people is going to have some bad apples and that the Trump administration’s estimates of 270 to 470 criminals in the caravan comport with the ratio seen during a 2014 immigration surge.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the Mexican government deports many criminals before they reach the United States and has named only two individuals in this case.

Asked about U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents lobbing tear gas at children near the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana over the weekend, Trump said it was necessary because they were being rushed by “very tough people.” He dismissed reports that children were among those subjected to tear gas. Photos and video taken on site show that these children were with their mothers, not hardened criminals. Men were also part of the group.

“A lot of young children fainted. My daughter also got hit,” one mother told The Washington Post. “There were pregnant women there and a lot of older men, too.”

"I felt that my face was burning, and my baby fainted. I ran for my life and that of my children,” Cindy Milla, a Honduran migrant with two children, told the Wall Street Journal.

The Pinocchio Test

Time keeps passing by and the president is still shifting blame, refusing to acknowledge the scope of his family separations, defending them with falsehoods and peddling unsubstantiated claims about criminals in the migrant caravan. The administration has had ample time to find something, anything, to support these claims. But the tank remains empty, and Trump earns another Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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Four Pinocchios
“Obama separated . . . . . . . . children from parents, as did Bush etc., because that is the policy and law. I tried to keep them together but the problem is, when you do that, vast numbers of additional people storm the Border. So with Obama seperation is fine, but with Trump it’s not. Fake 60 Minutes!”
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Sunday, November 25, 2018