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Trump digs in on false claim that he stopped Obama’s 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)

“President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it, you know it, we all know it. I didn’t have — I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. … President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it, okay?”

— President Trump, in remarks at the Oval Office, April 9, 2019

This is a Four Pinocchio claim, yet Trump keeps repeating it when he’s pressed on family separations.

Repetition can’t change reality. There is simply no comparison between Trump’s family separation policy and the border enforcement actions of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

The Facts

The Obama administration rejected a plan for family separations, according to Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top adviser for immigration. The Trump administration operated a pilot program for family separations in the El Paso area beginning in mid-2017.

In April 2018, the pilot took off. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled out a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults caught crossing the border illegally. The next month, the Department of Homeland Security began to refer all illegal-crossing cases to federal prosecutors.

This meant systematically separating all families caught crossing the border.

Minor children can’t be prosecuted with their parents, so the government separated and reclassified them as unaccompanied children. A federal consent decree mandates that unaccompanied children be released within 20 days to a relative or child-care facility.

The Trump administration has identified more than 2,700 children covered by a court order mandating family reunifications. But the real number is unknown and could include thousands more.

“The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” according to a report released in January by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. “Pursuant to a June 2018 Federal District Court order, HHS has thus far identified 2,737 children in its care at that time who were separated from their parents. However, thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017 [in El Paso], before the accounting required by the Court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children.”

So, parents were funneled into the criminal justice system and eventual deportation proceedings. Their kids were placed in shelters, relatives’ homes or in foster care while their cases worked their way through immigration courts.

The Trump administration implemented this policy by choice, exercising its discretion to prosecute some crimes over others. But no law or court ruling mandates family separations. In fact, during its first 15 months, the Trump administration released nearly 100,000 immigrants who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, a total that includes more than 37,500 unaccompanied minors and more than 61,000 family-unit members.

The zero-tolerance approach 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.

Trump did not end that particular policy, which is still in effect. He issued an executive order on June 20 to end his own much broader policy of systematic family separations.

“Prior to the Trump Administration, aliens apprehended between ports of entry who were not considered enforcement priorities (e.g., a public safety threat, repeat illegal border crosser, convicted felon, suspected child trafficker) were typically not criminally prosecuted for illegal entry but would be placed directly into civil removal proceedings for unauthorized U.S. presence,” according to a February report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The CRS report added that “data are not available on the rate and/or absolute number of family separations resulting from illegal border crossing prosecutions under prior Administrations, limiting the degree to which comparisons can be made with the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy.”

However, DHS officials said they referred to prosecutors an average of 21 percent of “amenable adults” who were detained between ports of entry from fiscal 2010 to 2016.

How many of those adults were separated from their children? The data doesn’t say, and it’s important to note that Central American families began to migrate in droves to the United States beginning in 2014. (Before then, unauthorized migration to the United States was driven mostly by single men from Mexico.)

Regardless, prosecuting 21 percent is much lower than prosecuting 100 percent. That’s what Trump’s zero-tolerance policy called for, because it applied to all adults, regardless of whether they asked for asylum or had children in tow.

Here’s a look at all the times Trump has repeated this claim, drawn from our database of Trump’s false or misleading statements:

“The Democrats policy of Child Seperation on the Border during the Obama Administration was far worse than the way we handle it now. Remember the 2014 picture of children in cages - the Obama years. However, if you don’t separate, FAR more people will come. Smugglers use the kids!” (Dec. 18 tweet)

“Obama had a separation policy; we all had the same policy.” (Nov. 26 remarks)

“.@60Minutes did a phony story about child separation when they know we had the exact same policy as the Obama Administration. In fact a picture of children in jails was used by other Fake Media to show how bad (cruel) we are, but it was in 2014 during O years. 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 separation is fine, but with Trump it’s not. Fake 60 Minutes!” (Nov. 25 tweets)

“Under President Obama, they separated children from the parents. We actually put it so that that didn’t happen. … President Obama separated the children, the parents. And nobody complained. When we continued the exact same law, this country went crazy.” (Nov. 1 remarks)

“Now President Obama had the same law; he did the same thing.” (Oct. 16 interview)

“That was the same as the Obama law. You know, Obama had the same thing.” (Oct. 14 interview)

“You know we’re very tough on people crossing the borders illegally. And you know Obama had the same policy of separation. You know, people don’t realize half the pictures were taken of separation were taken where, most of the pictures, that pictures in ’14 of kids separated from their parents. That was all Obama. People don’t say it but Obama had the same law that I did and they separated parents from children.” (Sept. 3 interview)

“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated. It’s a problem that’s gone on for many years, as you know, through many administrations.” (June 20 remarks)

After making these latest remarks in the Oval Office on April 9, Trump tweeted a video montage of news reports showing children in caged enclosures during the Obama administration in 2014. That doesn’t mean Obama systematically separated families, as Trump did.

The Bottom Line

We’ve already given this claim Four Pinocchios. We’ve given Four Pinocchios to a related claim: that several laws and court rulings were forcing family separations. We also gave Four Pinocchios to the Trump administration for giving the public incomplete numbers on family separations and reunifications.

We’ve given these claims as many Pinocchios as we can possibly muster. That is, except for the Bottomless Pinocchio, which is getting closer and closer.

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Four Pinocchios
“President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it, you know it, we all know it. I didn’t have — I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. … President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it, okay?”
in remarks at the White House, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, April 9, 2019