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Fact-checking Trump's claim on family separation

CNN's Jake Tapper, in partnership with FactCheck.org, looks at President Trump's claim that Democratic legislation has caused immigrant families to be separated.

Posted: Jul 11, 2018 7:41 PM
Updated: Jul 11, 2018 7:52 PM

President Donald Trump's now-reversed "zero-tolerance" policy to prosecute parents who illegally cross the border with their children did not come out of thin air.

The policy, which drew international outcry for its effect of separating thousands of immigrant families, followed months of previous Trump administration efforts to change border policies, including by rolling back a host of protections for immigrant families put in place by courts and Congress.

Though these moves are partly a reflection of this President's far more aggressive stance toward immigration, they also reflect this simple fact: Migration at the southern border today is entirely different than it was five years ago.

Much of Trump's rhetoric on the border harks back a decade, to a time when mostly Mexican individuals were crossing the border illegally in huge numbers looking for work.

But today the situation is far different. Illegal immigration from Mexicans has dropped substantially, and increasingly migrants are fleeing violence and instability in Central America.

The pool of migrants is also increasingly made up of families and of children on their own. Many of them seek asylum when they arrive, believing they may qualify for protections designed for immigrants fleeing persecution in their home countries. They may also know that the court backlog means they'll likely get to live in the US for at least a few years while they pursue their claims.

The laws, however, have not caught up to the new migration patterns.

"So it's a tough dilemma. It was a tough dilemma for the Obama administration and it resulted in a lot of difficulties for them, and it's a tough dilemma for the Trump administration," said Randy Capps, an immigration trends expert with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "It's giving them a lot of trouble right now."

Despite Trump's common claims that the border is in a "crisis" state, illegal crossings are at some of their lowest points in history, steadily declining over the last decade. Last fall, Department of Homeland Security analysts declared the Southwest border "more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before."

But as overall crossings have dropped, the share of crossings by families has steadily increased.

In 2013, 87% of those caught crossing the border illegally were individuals. By 2017, that number had plummeted to 61%. Meanwhile the share of families crossing grew from nearly 4% to nearly 25%, and the share of children traveling alone climbed from 9% to 14%.

The Trump administration has called the laws that protect families and children "loopholes," asking Congress to reverse many of them. Specifically, the administration has sought to reverse a court settlement that children with their families must be released from detention after 20 days.

A federal judge this week strongly rebuffed the administration's attempt to roll back the court settlement, calling it "cynical" and "without merit."

Judge Dolly Gee called the government's argument that an increase in families at the border had come because of the earlier settlement "dubious" and unconvincing," rejecting it.

"Any number of other factors could have caused the increase in illegal border crossings, including civil strife, economic degradation, and fear of death in the migrants' home countries," she wrote.

The administration has also sought the reversal of protections for children in the unanimously passed William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. In particular, it wants to be able to immediately deport children from Central America, as it is able to do with children from neighboring Mexico. It also has targeted parts of the law that give children longer to pursue asylum claims, and the right to do so in a less adversarial setting than adults.

Those moves are a reflection of the increased share of migrants coming from Central America -- who reflect a different set of motivations than the economically motivated Mexican migrants of decades past.

"Before 2013, it was almost the vast majority Mexican, the vast majority adults and economic migrants," Capps said. "And now this is a mixed flow. It's a mixed flow of countries, it's a mixed flow of demographics because it's not just adult men, and it's a mixed flow of reasons for coming because it's not just economic migrants, it's a lot of people fleeing violence as well."

That has resulted in a sharp uptick in asylum claims in the US, which has bogged down the immigration courts that judge whether an immigrant has the right to stay in the country. The number of immigration judges has barely grown, standing today at roughly 330, while the backlog of cases has swelled to 700,000.

A further reflection of the rise in asylum seekers is the number of people showing up at legal crossings without paperwork to enter the country, rather than sneaking across illegally. Many of those individuals make asylum claims once they are on US soil, and an increasing share of the total number of Southwest border migration is represented by these "inadmissable" immigrants.

The administration has sought to make it harder to qualify for asylum, including by asking for legislation, issuing guidance to interviewers in the field and with the attorney general's recent reinterpretation of asylum law to narrow who qualifies.

The administration's efforts are rooted in the belief that with enough of a crackdown, would-be migrants can be deterred. But Capps said that notion misunderstands the motivations of who is coming to the border today.

"This whole question of deterrence is an interesting question, because you're talking about deterring people from risking their lives on a pretty dangerous journey through Mexico, many of whom felt their lives were threatened in their home countries, or their livelihoods were threatened," Capps said. "Unless you cut off asylum altogether, unless you detain everyone who comes to stay ... it's going to be very hard to cut off these flows, and then you're denying humanitarian rights to people."

"Some people do have valid asylum claims," he added.

He acknowledged that smuggling organizations and Central Americans do study what happens in the US, and smugglers and families already in the US send word back home about what opportunities to sneak into the US might exist. But that doesn't mean they can be convinced to stay home.

"There's just a certain group of people, particularly in Honduras and more so Guatemala, who are going to try to come eventually unless conditions in their home country improve," he said. "It's just a matter of timing."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 926931

Reported Deaths: 9740
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1809132056
Ramsey749811054
Dakota68505591
Anoka64961589
Washington41119367
Stearns34021287
St. Louis29939416
Scott26281188
Wright26260226
Olmsted22677131
Sherburne19206130
Carver1687671
Clay12219108
Blue Earth1162171
Rice11578139
Crow Wing11318124
Chisago1005281
Kandiyohi9913108
Otter Tail9908130
Benton9174128
Beltrami8249100
Goodhue822699
Douglas7967101
Itasca779999
Mower740049
McLeod723384
Winona715158
Isanti711085
Steele695034
Morrison678681
Becker631675
Polk608987
Freeborn569947
Carlton552577
Mille Lacs539479
Lyon532961
Nicollet528561
Nobles527954
Pine521143
Cass505255
Todd496443
Brown473661
Le Sueur464736
Meeker437960
Martin391344
Waseca381433
Wabasha380110
Dodge366412
Hubbard357649
Roseau320532
Fillmore310115
Wadena306040
Redwood283845
Houston275317
Renville271651
Faribault261835
Sibley256017
Pennington254830
Kanabec254437
Cottonwood232933
Aitkin225052
Chippewa222043
Pope209910
Watonwan201121
Yellow Medicine189925
Koochiching179225
Rock178429
Swift174124
Stevens170211
Jackson162016
Clearwater159421
Marshall154822
Murray152911
Pipestone150929
Lake134124
Lac qui Parle124425
Wilkin122016
Mahnomen108314
Norman10579
Grant102410
Big Stone9585
Lincoln8915
Kittson74623
Red Lake71810
Traverse6086
Unassigned563124
Lake of the Woods5285
Cook3141

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 532160

Reported Deaths: 7379
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk81677809
Linn32838430
Scott27126295
Black Hawk22334382
Woodbury20736263
Johnson20150108
Dubuque18996243
Pottawattamie16215214
Dallas15573115
Story1398059
Warren8637107
Cerro Gordo8141125
Clinton7928115
Webster7419124
Des Moines7153106
Marshall675494
Muscatine6717117
Wapello6546145
Unassigned64520
Jasper630591
Sioux622477
Lee5977106
Marion567697
Buena Vista503449
Plymouth493388
Henry427155
Benton414760
Jones413564
Bremer403873
Boone397042
Washington395464
Carroll373355
Mahaska372366
Crawford355647
Jackson324047
Dickinson317555
Buchanan312743
Delaware303255
Clay297636
Kossuth293477
Fayette290356
Hardin289253
Tama282878
Page276133
Wright270050
Cedar269527
Winneshiek267744
Hamilton262757
Floyd261049
Clayton252360
Poweshiek242043
Harrison240979
Madison237425
Butler237346
Cass235667
Iowa234336
Jefferson228544
Mills225330
Hancock222840
Winnebago222339
Cherokee217347
Appanoose210157
Lyon209842
Allamakee209456
Calhoun199519
Shelby199542
Union197141
Humboldt188231
Franklin188031
Grundy186137
Chickasaw184522
Mitchell184343
Emmet180146
Louisa178653
Sac175626
Guthrie169338
Clarke163629
Montgomery163146
Keokuk152639
Palo Alto152332
Howard150624
Monroe144340
Ida134141
Greene128818
Davis126825
Lucas126127
Monona124940
Worth12309
Pocahontas122125
Adair118239
Osceola105718
Decatur104813
Taylor100914
Fremont98913
Van Buren95922
Wayne86125
Ringgold78429
Audubon77617
Adams5869
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