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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

O’Malley’s Immigration Exaggeration

Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton disagreed last year on what to do about the Central American children who illegally crossed the border. But O’Malley went too far in claiming that Clinton wanted to “return refugee children from Central America summarily back to death gangs and the drug gangs.”

Clinton drew a distinction last year between migrants who crossed the border illegally for economic or family reasons and refugees whose lives would be in danger if they were deported. She favored returning migrant children to “responsible adults in their families” back in Central America. But she also said that she would not deport children who had “a legitimate claim for asylum” and “would face some terrible danger if they return.”

O’Malley, who served as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, is one of a few Democrats preparing to challenge Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. It has been clear for many months that O’Malley likely would run against Clinton and he gained some press coverage last summer when, on July 11, 2014, he “went to the left of Hillary Clinton on the border crisis,” as Real Clear Politics put it.

In the summer of 2014, there was a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 30, 2014, President Obama sought money from Congress to, among other things, expedite the deportation of the unaccompanied minors – which drew criticism from groups that support civil rights and less restrictive immigration policies.

Clinton supported the president’s position. But O’Malley said the Obama administration’s proposal would send the children “back to certain death.”

So there are differences between the candidates on that issue.

But O’Malley went too far when he recalled the border crisis during a campaign visit to New Hampshire, as reported by the Washington Post:

Washington Post, May 13: O’Malley was also asked whether he thought Clinton’s embrace last week of several pro-immigration measures was genuine.

He instead cited his own record, which included standing up to the White House last year in the midst of a wave of undocumented minors coming over the border from Central America.

“I said many, many months ago when some were suggesting — including Secretary Clinton — that we should return refugee children from Central America summarily back to death gangs and the drug gangs in Honduras and Guatemala,” O’Malley said. “I said that that was inconsistent with our moral principles as a people, that we are a generous and compassionate nation.”

Clinton did not say or suggest that “refugee children” should be sent “summarily back to death gangs.” In fact, she said the opposite.

O’Malley’s staff forwarded us numerous citations of Clinton’s statements on the border crisis, beginning with remarks she made at a June 17, 2014 town hall meeting that were televised on CNN. The former Secretary of State attracted sharp criticism for saying: “We have to send a clear message. Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.” But that wasn’t all she said.

Her full response to the question shows she said some children should be returned to “responsible adults in their families” back home, but not all of them should be deported. She also said that allowing all of the children to stay would “encourage more children to make that dangerous journey” to the U.S.

Christiane Amanpour of CNN, June 17, 2014: So you are saying they should be sent back now.

Clinton: Well, they should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because there are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back, but I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families. And just as Vice President Joe Biden is arguing today in Central American, we’ve got to do more. I started this when I was secretary, to deal with the violence in this region, to deal with border security. But we have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. So we don’t want to send a message that’s contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.

Clinton expounded on that answer five weeks later in interviews with John Harwood of the New York Times and Jorge Ramos of Fusion, a media company that is jointly owned by Univision and Disney/ABC Television.

In the interview with the Times, which appeared on July 24, 2014, Clinton made a distinction between migrant children and refugee children.

“We have two categories of people that are represented by these poor children that have come across our border. We have migrants, children who are leaving for a variety of reasons — economic, they want to reunite with family members,” she told the Times. “And we have refugees, people who have reason to be threatened, people who have bad probabilities if they return home as to what might happen to them.”

She said something similar to Ramos, who asked the question: “Who would you deport?” She responded: “Whoever was in the category of where they don’t have a legitimate claim for asylum.”

She also told Ramos that the Obama administration made a “good suggestion” to airlift certain at-risk Central American children to the U.S. A day earlier, on July 24, 2014, the New York Times reported that the administration was considering creating a refugee program for children from Honduras. Clinton spoke about doing the same for children from El Salvador and Guatemala as well.

Ramos, July 25, 2014: I think no government should be in the business of deporting endangered children.

Clinton: No, of course not. That’s why we need a process to determine who falls into that category, and then I do think the Obama administration has made a good suggestion. We’ve done this in Vietnam. We’ve done this in Haiti. We should be setting up a system in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, to screen kids. And in fact John McCain –

Ramos: Over there?

Clinton: Over there. Before they get in the hands of coyotes or get on ‘The Beast’ or they’re raped or terrible things happen to them.

That’s exactly what the Obama administration did in November, as we recently wrote about.

As for tens of thousands of children who came here illegally, they were turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for placement under its Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, as required by law. Initially, the children were placed in temporary shelters, but they since have “either been transferred to standard shelters or released to sponsors while they await immigration proceedings,” according to the ORR website. The sponsors could be foster parents or relatives living in the U.S., as we explained in an item last year.

O’Malley’s staff makes the point that any child deported faces certain death. We understand the governor’s point, but in making it he misrepresented Clinton’s position.

Clinton advocated last year to protect refugee children from Central America — those living in the U.S. and those still in Central America — contrary to O’Malley’s claim that she suggested “we should return refugee children from Central America summarily back to death gangs and the drug gangs.”

— Eugene Kiely