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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

King’s ‘Thin Air’ Immigrant Stat

Rep. Steve King attracted attention — and criticism from Republican leaders — for saying of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children: “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” King later told CNN that he had data to back up his claim, saying, “This isn’t something made up in thin air.” But, so far, he hasn’t produced any such information.

At FactCheck.org, we put the burden of proof on the politician making the claim. We contacted King’s office about his assertion but haven’t received a response yet.

King entered into the Congressional Record on July 24 an Associated Press story in relation to his comments. But that March 14, 2012, story merely said there had been an increase between 2008 and 2011 in apprehensions of 14- to 18-year-olds attempting to cross the Tijuana-San Diego border with the intent to sell drugs. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman told the AP that 190 had been arrested at that border crossing in 2011. There is nothing in the article about so-called “DREAMers” — those who came to the U.S. illegally as children and are eligible to stay in the U.S. temporarily under Obama administration rules. That’s the group of immigrants to which King said he referred.

It’s probably not possible to actually check this claim. We contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Pew Hispanic Center to see if they had statistics directly applicable to King’s statement. None did.

We did find — as we often do with political claims — that there’s a legitimate issue here, buried beneath an over-the-top statement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they’ve witnessed a trend of drug cartels recruiting both Mexican and U.S. citizens under age 18 to run drugs across the border. But an official we spoke with didn’t describe these smugglers as immigrants looking for a new life in the United States. Some live in border towns and go back and forth as part of their daily lives. Those who cross illegally to smuggle drugs are “dropping off the marijuana and going back into Mexico,” an official told us.

In other words, these aren’t exactly the “DREAMers” who want to stay in the U.S. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates 11.1 million immigrants were in the country illegally, total, as of 2011. Pew estimated in August 2012, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (for “DREAMers”) went into effect, that up to 1.7 million “could potentially qualify” for the program that would allow them to avoid deportation.

(The term “DREAMers” is a reference to the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — legislation that would create a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children who meet other criteria. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program addresses this same population, but doesn’t allow for legal status.)

To qualify for deferred action, immigrants would have to: be under age 31 as of June 15, 2012, have come to the U.S. before age 16, and have stayed in the country continuously since June 2007. They also must be in school or have a high school diploma or equivalent, or have been honorably discharged from the military. And, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says, these immigrants must not have been “convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors,” or otherwise “pose a threat to national security or public safety.”

If they meet those requirements, they can receive a renewable two-year shield from deportation, and then potentially work authorization. The program doesn’t grant permanent residency or citizenship. In early June, the House passed an amendment, sponsored by King, to defund the deferred action program.

Immigration Uproar

King made his original comment in an interview, posted July 18, with the conservative Newsmax website. The Iowa Republican also opposes immigration legislation backed by the bipartisan Gang of Eight in the Senate that would give immigrants living in the U.S. illegally the opportunity to become citizens after about a 13-year period. King said that he does feel sympathy for some immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents. But he had a response for those who say some of these immigrants end up being valedictorians of their classes:

King, July 18, Newsmax interview (6:15 mark): It doesn’t mean there aren’t groups of people in this country that I have sympathy for. I do. And there are kids that were brought into this country by their parents unknowing that they were breaking the law. And they will say to me and others who defend the rule of law, we have to do something about the 11 million and some of them are valedictorians, well my answer to that is, and then by the way their parents brought them in, it wasn’t their fault. It’s true in some cases. But they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act. And until the folks that want to open the borders and grant this amnesty can define the difference between the innocent ones who have deep ties with America and those who have been, I’ll say, undermining our culture and civilization and profiting from criminal acts, until they can define that difference, they should not advocate for amnesty for both good and evil.

The remark sparked criticism from some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner. He called King’s comments “deeply offensive and wrong,” saying: “There’s no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials.”

But King doubled-down on the claim in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, saying he had the goods to back it up and confirming that he was talking about “DREAMers.”

Wolf Blitzer, CNN, July 24: So for every valedictorian, who’s a DREAMer, as they call them, there’s 100 out there who are smuggling drugs, is that what you’re saying?

King: Wolf, yes. And, you know, you only get one valedictorian per class per year. And they aren’t all dreamers. And a lot of other American kids out here that are competing for that valedictorian status.

But every night there are dozens and scores of people that are smuggling drugs across our border. I’ve been down there multiple times. I’ve sat along the border at night. I’ve traveled with the Border Patrol for days on end. I’ve sat on a ranch house out in the desert and had the Border Patrol or helicopter pilots come to me one at a time in a clandestine setting, tell me their narratives.

This isn’t something that just was made up out of thin air. This is something I get from the people enforcing the law down on the border. I’ve seen it with my eyes. I’ve unloaded the illegal drugs with my hands. And I’ve dealt with the people that are enforcing the law. And I’ve watched the data and the videos that support what I say.

And the longer this dialogue goes, the more the American people are going to understand what I’m saying is factually correct. It’s probably understated.

King hasn’t released “the data and the videos that support what I say.” But it’s also unclear if he was serious about his specific 1-to-100 ratio. He also told CNN’s Blitzer: “Border Patrol agents don’t know how many valedictorians we have that are also DREAM-ers. In fact, I don’t know that the public knows either, but I can tell you it’s not nearly as many as the advocates for the DREAM Act would like to have you believe.”

There is anecdotal evidence of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children growing up to be valedictorians, and those in favor of changing the immigration laws have highlighted such cases. For instance, Benita Veliz, a 27-year-old from Texas, spoke at the Democratic convention last year. She said she was brought to the U.S. as a child, “graduated as valedictorian of my class at the age of 16 and earned a double major at the age of 20.”

We doubt there’s anyone who knows how many valedictorians are actually in the country illegally. Such specific information about those without legal status simply isn’t easily collected. But we also don’t know how many immigrants here illegally were drug smugglers as children.

King told CNN’s Blitzer that “we’re seeing that the numbers of those arrested have grown a multiple of 10 times over the last year and a half or so, and in Mexico, there are the multiples also, 800 to 900 a year in Mexico arrested smuggling drugs and for drug-related crimes.” Those numbers appear to come from the Associated Press article that King entered into the Congressional Record on July 24. The article says that arrests of 14- to 18-year-olds crossing the border between Tijuana and San Diego to sell drugs “has grown tenfold” between 2008 and 2011. It also says there were 810 detentions of youths for drug-related offenses in Mexico in 2009, three years after Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug smuggling.

But neither of those numbers comes anywhere close to backing up King’s claim. In fact, the AP article explained a growing problem with cartels using kids to smuggle or sell drugs, with many becoming addicted themselves and ending up in drug rehab centers in and near Tijuana.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has noticed a trend in smugglers targeting young people to bring drugs across the border, since the legal consequences aren’t as strict for minors as they are for adults. Several years ago, the CBP launched a public service campaign called Operation Detour with schools in border towns to tell teens about the dangers of getting involved in drug smuggling operations. This 2009 video by The Texas Tribune shows some of the presentation by Border Patrol and local law enforcement at a Texas high school.

A CBP official explained to us that the smugglers are targeting kids in border towns who travel across the border naturally — whether they are Mexican nationals who attend school in the U.S., or U.S. citizens or permanent residents who frequently cross into Mexico, legally. Then there are smugglers, some of them young people, who cross illegally, carrying pounds of marijuana and dropping it off in the U.S. They go back to Mexico so they can continue smuggling drugs.

Update, July 29: Three days after King told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that his claim “isn’t something made up in thin air,” King said on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” that he had pulled the 100 drug smugglers figure “out of a hat.” On July 27, King told guest host Morgan Spurlock that he stood by his statement: “It’s utterly true, and I haven’t found anybody that came up with a competing number. Certainly I pulled the 100 out of a hat, but I think that’s probably a low number and I’ve been to the border multiple times.”

— Lori Robertson