UPDATE: President Trump on Friday again claimed that human traffickers taped women’s mouths at the border.
“Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths, in many cases they can’t even breathe,” he said in the Rose Garden while discussing a deal to temporarily end the partial government shutdown. “They’re put in the backs of cars or vans or trucks.”
Experts say Trump’s claims are ‘divorced from reality.’ His comment Friday was at least the second time he has mentioned taped-up women since The Post initially published this story on Jan. 17, bringing the total number of statements on taped-up women to at least 10 times in 22 days.
President Trump has a new favorite anecdote, one that fixates on tape.
Specifically, in public remarks at the White House, at the border and at farming conventions, the president has been talking about tape on the mouths of migrant women. On at least eight occasions over a period of 12 days this month, the president has argued publicly for his proposed wall on the southern border by claiming without evidence that traffickers tie up and silence women with tape before illegally driving them through the desert from Mexico to the United States in the backs of cars and windowless vans.
In Trump’s telling, the adhesive is sometimes blue tape. Other times it is electrical tape or duct tape.
In some instances, the descriptions are more salacious and graphic. “Human trafficking — grabbing women, in particular — and children, but women — taping them up, wrapping tape around their mouths so they can’t shout or scream, tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs and putting them in a back seat of a car or a van — three, four, five, six, seven at a time,” the president said in the Cabinet Room on Jan. 11. (A timeline of the president’s taped-women remarks appears below.)
With an eerie specificity, Trump has characterized these acts as commonplace.
Yet human-trafficking experts and advocates for immigrant women have said they are perplexed by this increasingly repeated story in Trump’s repertoire — and are at a loss for where he got his information. It was not from them, they say; in fact, they have no idea what he is talking about.
“I think his statements are completely divorced from reality,” said Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “That’s not a fact pattern that we see.”
In interviews with The Washington Post this week, nine aid workers and academics who have worked on the border or have knowledge of trafficking there said the president’s tape anecdote did not mirror what they have seen or heard. A separate story reported in the Toronto Star cited several additional experts who said Trump’s lurid narrative — migrant women bound, gagged and driven across the border — does not align with their known reality.
“I have no idea the roots of it,” said Edna Yang, assistant executive director of American Gateways, a Texas-based immigration legal services and advocacy nonprofit. “I haven’t seen a case like that.”
“I’ve never had that,” said Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the Tahirih Justice Center, who said she has been dealing with human trafficking for 20 years and recently met with people in Tijuana, traveling with a migrant caravan.
“His representation of how traffickers get their victims into the country just isn’t what we’re seeing,” said Evangeline Chan, director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon, a leading victim assistance organization. “It is very, very different.”
“I’m not really sure where his information is coming from,” said Leah Chavla, a policy adviser with the Women’s Refugee Commission, who has made nearly 15 trips to the border since 2017 and has worked with Latin American migrants.
No prominent news reports have detailed a case that matches the president’s description.
Since Trump took office two years ago, he has made more than 7,645 false or misleading claims, according to The Post’s Fact Checker database, more than 1,000 of which were about immigration.
But those who spoke with The Post did not rule out the possibility that there are female trafficking victims near the border who have been bound or gagged. They were also careful to make clear that they could not speak for what others, such as law enforcement officials, may have told the president.
“Could it happen? Sure, it could,” Yang said.
But the women she has represented have never talked about being tied up with tape, she said, noting that a border wall would not have saved them from traffickers.
“It’s clear that he just doesn’t have an understanding of what happens at the border,” Yang said. “I think that all President Trump is doing is pushing a wall. A wall is not going to stop individuals fleeing to the United States when home conditions are terrible. He’s just trying different tactics to get what he wants.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the origins of the president’s talking point. Questions sent to the national and state public affairs offices for U.S. Customs and Border Protection were not answered, perhaps because of the government shutdown.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, also did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether any of its members had witnessed a scenario matching the president’s description.
Top officials from the union met with Trump at the White House on Jan. 3 to discuss border security; the president began using the taped-mouths anecdote the following day.
Migrant women do face great dangers while traveling to the U.S. border through Mexico. Some are fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking in their home countries. One Amnesty International estimate claimed 60 percent of migrant women and girls are raped on their journey. Experts say women and girls take birth control before traveling north, in anticipation of the sexual violence they may encounter.
When women, children and men are trafficked into the country, experts say it does not happen — at least not regularly — in the way Trump has been describing it over the past two weeks. Often, the migrants are willingly led on foot to illegally cross the border or legally enter with a visa at a port with the promise of a job when they arrive.
“We have had individuals lured through recruiters and smugglers, not realizing that the job that waits for them is trafficking,” said Chandler of the Tahirih Justice Center. “On the journey, at the U.S.-Mexico border, they are completely unaware that they’re walking into a trafficking situation.”
It is possible that migrant women have been bound and gagged at stash houses on either side of the border, locations where people are taken and held for ransom and at times sexually exploited, said Elaine Carey, a dean at Purdue University Northwest who has studied trafficking at the border.
The introduction of the taped women in Trump’s description of border-crossing situations coincides with a shift in tone by his administration on the need for border wall funding, a request that Congress has refused to grant. The impasse has led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Trump appears to have introduced the anecdote on Jan. 4 while speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden, after a meeting with congressional leadership on border security. That was also around the time the president began describing the situation at the border as a humanitarian crisis.
In the Rose Garden, Trump said he told meeting attendees that “one of the things that happens there is human traffickers — maybe that’s the worst of all — where you’ll have traffickers having three and four women with tape on their mouths and tied up, sitting in the back of a van or a car."
Trafficking experts theorized that the president may have taken this description from a private conversation he had with a Border Patrol agent.
The day before the anecdote’s Rose Garden debut, Trump made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room and said the “people in our country want” the wall. (A Washington Post-ABC News poll recently found that 42 percent of Americans support the wall and 54 percent oppose it.) Trump was flanked that day by National Border Patrol Council officials who championed his demand.
Timeline: Evolution of the tape anecdote
Jan. 4, Washington | Remarks in Rose Garden after meeting with congressional leadership on border security
"One of the things that happens there is human traffickers — maybe that’s the worst of all — where you’ll have traffickers having three and four women with tape on their mouths and tied up, sitting in the back of a van or a car, and they’ll drive that van or the car not through a port of entry, where we have very talented people that look for every little morsel of drugs, or even people, or whatever they’re looking for. Not going to go there. They get off the road and they drive out into the desert, and they come on, they make a left turn. Usually it’s a left, not a right.”
Jan. 6, Washington | Remarks on South Lawn before Marine One departure
“Human trafficking — where they grab women, put tape over their mouth, come through our border, and sell them. …”
“ . . . But if you look at the human trafficking, they come in, they nab women, they grab them, they put tape over their mouth, they tie their hands, and they take them to another country, and they go right over that border.”
Jan. 9, Washington | Signing ceremony in Oval Office for “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act”
“We’re talking about, in many cases, women and children grabbed, thrown into the back seat of a car, or thrown into a van with no windows, with no — any form of air. Tape put across their mouths. And they’re brought across the border. And they don’t go through checkpoints; they go through the emptiest spot they can find, with no walls, with no fences.”
Jan. 10, McAllen, Tex. | Roundtable on border security
“And where there’s no fencing or walls of any kind, they just make a left into the United States, and they come in and they have women tied up. They have tape over their mouths — electrical tape. Usually blue tape, as they call it. It’s powerful stuff. Not good.”
Jan. 11, Washington | Roundtable in Cabinet Room on border security
“The Internet has made things, in many ways, better, and, in many ways, much worse. But human trafficking — grabbing women, in particular — and children, but women — taping them up, wrapping tape around their mouths so they can’t shout or scream, tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs and putting them in a back seat of a car or a van — three, four, five, six, seven at a time.”
Jan. 12, Fox News | Interview on “Justice with Judge Jeanine”
“Many of our crimes, much of MS-13, comes through the border, drugs — a big proportion of the drugs from that we have from this country, in this country, come through the border. The human trafficking where they tie women up, they put duct tape over their mouths, electrical tape, and they bring them in. They traffic in women and children, and they come through the border.”
Jan. 14, Washington | Remarks on the South Lawn before Marine One departure
“We’re talking about border security. Who could be against it? We’re talking about drugs pouring in — human traffickers tying up women, putting tape on their mouth, and pouring into our country. We can’t have that. We can’t have that.”
Jan. 14, New Orleans | American Farm Bureau Federation 100th annual convention
“They target young children — the Internet. And they come in through our southern border into our country. And they’ll have women taped — their mouths with duct tape, with electrical tape. They tape their face, their hair, their hands behind their back, their legs. They put them in the back seat of cars and vans, and they go — they don’t come in through your port of entry because you’d see them. You couldn’t do that.”
Jan. 24, Washington | Meeting on U.S. Reciprocal Trade Act
“We have to have the wall. You’d stop drugs. You’d stop human trafficking. I mean, human trafficking — where they tie up women and they put duct tape on their mouths, and they put them in the backseat of a car or in a van....”
“... I mean, you have hundreds of miles of open space, and they go out there, and they’re loaded up with drugs or they have women in the backseat of the cars with duct tape all over the place. It’s a disgrace.”
Jan. 25, Washington | Remarks from Rose Garden on temporary end to partial government shutdown
“Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths. In many cases they can’t even breathe. They’re put in the backs of cars or vans or trucks...”
“... They can’t come through the port, because if they come through the port, people will see four women sitting in a van with tape around their face and around their mouth. Can’t have that.”