President Trump speaks about immigration in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 16. (Susan Walsh/AP)

As President Trump outlined his administration’s new immigration proposal Thursday, he again returned to one of his favorite topics, a proposed wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

That wall and, more broadly, increased border security are included in the administration proposal (specific details of which have not yet been made public). Which means that those listening to Trump’s Rose Garden speech were treated to a short version of one of Trump’s favorite lines of rhetoric. We need a wall, he argued, to stop various criminal acts like human smuggling.

At one point in his speech, Trump offered some numbers to bolster the urgency of that claim.

“Current law and federal court rulings encourage criminal organizations to smuggle children across the border,” Trump said. “The tragic result is that 65 percent of all border crossers this year were either minors or adults traveling with minors. Our plan will change the law to stop the flood of child smuggling and to humanely reunite unaccompanied children with their families back home — and rapidly. As soon as possible.”

That 65 percent figure is generally accurate. Of the 460,000 people who’ve been apprehended at the border with Mexico this fiscal year (since October 2018), 248,000 were members of what are called “family units,” groups of relatives that include a minor. Another 45,000 were minors who arrived at the border by themselves.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)wp-grap

As you can see on the graph above, the increase in the percentage of apprehensions that involve a minor is a function of the number of family units that are being apprehended. That’s the surge that Trump has been concerned about: a spike in the number of families seeking entry. That was the point of his child-separation policy, too. The goal was to make parents hoping to come to the United States fear losing their children — and therefore stay home.

But notice how Trump’s rhetoric differs from what the data show. He doesn’t talk about “family units.” He talks about “adults traveling with minors,” and he then says that his proposal will “stop the flood of child smuggling.”

When families arrive at the border now, the government can only detain the children for a certain period. The result is often that families are released together once they’ve been processed and detained up to that limit, with the expectation that they’ll then return for their subsequent immigration hearings. That release offers an incentive for adults to migrate with children, since adults who arrive by themselves remain in custody. Trump’s claim is that fake families are a rampant problem that amounts to child trafficking.

The administration’s own records, though, show that these children aren’t being “smuggled” into the United States. Last June, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed that the number of people using children to pose as families had surged more than 300 percent. And it had — from 46 instances in fiscal 2017 to 191 in the first part of fiscal 2018. That latter figure made up 0.61 percent of the apprehensions over the same time period.

And that percentage was relatively high. When the Department of Homeland Security revisited the claim last November, they identified 170 instances of fraudulent family units. But that was over a longer period of time, so the number of purported “smugglers” had declined even further.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Mind you, even that percentage wasn’t necessarily “smuggling.” In some cases, children are sent to the United States in the company of family friends or neighbors for their protection. It may not be an official “family,” but it’s not an instance of human trafficking.

All of that said, though, perhaps the most remarkable part of Trump’s comments was his insistence that the law would “humanely reunite unaccompanied children with their families back home — and rapidly.”

There is often a reason that minors come to the border by themselves. The New York Times had a remarkable report on gang violence in Honduras and how it affected people living in a poor community there. It describes young men battling for turf, an intrusion from members of MS-13 and violence perpetrated against children. There is, in many if not most cases, a reason that children are leaving their families in Central America to come to the United States. Reuniting a teenager from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with his family might mean reintroducing him to the risk of being murdered.

Why make this claim? Because Trump still wants his border wall. He still wants that political victory and, presumably, still believes it’s an important component of border security.

Offering a false explanation of why children are brought to the border is a disservice to that goal, even if it’s by now an expected one.