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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s Immigration Tweets

President Donald Trump fired off a flurry of immigration-related tweets beginning on Easter morning, but his messages included muddled and inaccurate claims.

  • Contrary to Trump’s assertion, there is no “liberal (Democrat)” law requiring the “Catch & Release” of people caught illegally crossing the border. There are court cases and laws that require some unaccompanied children, families and asylum-seekers to be released in the U.S., pending an immigration hearing. But it’s a stretch to blame those entirely on Democrats.
  • Trump said “big flows of people” are illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico “to take advantage of DACA.” In fact, current border-crossers are not eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
  • Trump said that “caravans” of people were coming to the Southwest border and that Mexico “must stop them.” The caravan, a yearly demonstration, was organized by the activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which says the people walking in the caravan have “a lot of intentions,” with some wanting to stay in Mexico. The caravan is now in southern Mexico, more than 800 miles from the U.S. border.

Not long after sending Easter greetings to his Twitter followers, the president blamed “ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release” for preventing border patrol agents from doing their job at the Mexico border.

Contrary to his tweet, there is no “liberal (Democrat)” law for “Catch & Release” of people caught illegally crossing the border. Rather, it is mostly a policy, and one the Trump administration claimed last year to have reversed.

Despite changing the policy, however, the administration says its ability to entirely end the so-called catch-and-release practice is hampered by “loopholes” regarding the detention of unaccompanied minors, families and asylum-seekers. But it would be a stretch to place the blame for those “loopholes” on Democrats.

Catch-and-release refers to the practice of allowing some immigrants caught in the U.S. without proper documentation to be released back into the U.S., pending an immigration court hearing, rather detaining or immediately deporting them.

The policy emerged years ago as the country faced a backlog of court cases involving people who illegally crossed the border and a shortage of space to hold them at immigration detention centers.

While Mexicans and Canadians caught at the border are quickly returned, George W. Bush issued a policy in 2006 that required people from all countries caught trying to cross the border illegally to be detained until they could be returned. “The Administration has effectively ended the policy of ‘catch and release’,” the Bush administration said at the time.

The policy change cut the number of “aliens” released from 113,000 in FY2005 to “nearly zero” by mid-FY2007 and increased the demand for detention space, according to an April 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security.

That policy remained under President Barack Obama, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, but a flood of unaccompanied minors, families with children and asylum-seekers created new issues.

Two court cases, in particular, affect detention decisions related to unaccompanied children and their families. Under a court-approved settlement in 1997 called the Flores Settlement Agreement, DHS could detain unaccompanied children for only 20 days before releasing them to foster families, shelters or sponsors, pending resolution of their immigration cases. That agreement was signed during the Clinton administration in 1997. In 2015, a federal judge ruled that families with children should also be released as quickly as possible.

The Trump administration also says border patrol agents are hampered by a 2008 law — the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — which limits how long DHS can detain children from countries other than Mexico and Canada.

That law was designed to prevent human trafficking and reduce the risk of abduction and exploitation. The legislation was introduced by Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, but it was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of three Republicans and three Democrats. It passed both the House and the Senate by unanimous consent, and was signed into law by Bush, a Republican president.

So, while it is true that the administration is hampered in its efforts to detain certain immigrants, the president’s tweet inaccurately blames “ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release.”

“The administration does not entirely have a free hand in how it handles an influx of new arrivals, especially if some of them are children,” Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that describes itself as an advocate of low immigration, told us via email. “Because of a recent order from a federal judge, in effect, all children must be released. And, the number of new illegal arrivals has outstripped the number of available funded space to house them when they demand immigration hearings. Under the law, ICE cannot exceed the level of detention beds that Congress has funded – that would be spending public money that it doesn’t have. The Trump administration asked for more money than Congress decided to appropriate, so I think it is fair to hold Congress responsible for the shortage of detention funding that would help address the illegal influx.”

Shortly after taking office, Trump issued an executive order directing the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to “[terminate] the practice commonly known as ‘catch and release,’ whereby aliens are routinely released in the United States shortly after their apprehension for violations of immigration law.” Two months after implementing the policy change on Feb. 20, 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly declared in El Paso and San Diego that “we have ended dangerous ‘catch and release’ enforcement policies.”

DHS statistics indicate that under Trump there has been a sharp rise in the number of individuals detained after being apprehended at the border, even as border apprehensions declined.

But a Reuters investigation published on June 6, 2017, found that despite Kelly’s proclamation, “immigration attorneys, government statistics and even some officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement” suggest “there has been no clear change to the catch-and-release policy.”

“That’s in large part because there are legal constraints on who can be detained and for how long, due to a shortage of beds and a court ruling limiting the stay of women and children in custody to 21 days,” the Reuters story states.

Sessions acknowledged as much before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October, when he was asked by Sen. Ted Cruz why “the policies of catch and release of the Obama administration are still continuing in the current administration.”

“Essentially, it’s not the policy,” Sessions said. “It’s just the reality that there are so many people claiming and being entitled to hearings that we don’t have the ability to provide those hearings, and they are being released into the community and they’re not coming back for their hearings. It’s still unacceptable.”

Sessions said that DHS had a backlog of 600,000 immigration court cases, up from 300,000 in 2011, and that a growing number of people apprehended “claim they should not be deported because they have a fear of being sent back home.” And, he said, those people, under current law, are entitled to hearings.

Sessions argued that “loopholes” in the law allowing release of some unaccompanied minors, families and asylum-seekers are “too big.”

In a background briefing for reporters on April 2, senior administration officials said the White House is working with the Department of Homeland Security on a legislative package “to close these loopholes.” One senior administration official argued that Democrats have opposed their legislative efforts, but that’s different from what the president said when he claimed that “ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release” are preventing border patrol agents from doing their job.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

On Twitter and in remarks to reporters, the president also criticized Mexico on Easter for failing to help the U.S. stop illegal immigration. In doing so, however, he distorted the facts when he claimed that “big flows of people” are illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico “to take advantage of DACA,” a program started in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama via executive action.

Trump repeated his claim about the DACA program being a magnet for people illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico when he briefly spoke to reporters prior to Easter mass at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

Trump, April 1: Mexico has got to help us at the border. And a lot of people are coming in because they want to take advantage of DACA, and we’re going to have to really see.

They had a great chance. The Democrats blew it. They had a great, great chance but we’ll have to take a look, because Mexico has got to help us at the border. They flow right through Mexico. They send them into the United States. It can’t happen that way anymore.

Trump’s claim that “a lot of people are coming in because they want to take advantage of DACA” ignores the fact that people now illegally crossing into the U.S. are not eligible for DACA — either as it was originally implemented in 2012 by Obama or currently under Trump.

As we wrote in “The Facts on DACA,” the Obama-era program defers deportation proceedings for two years for qualified individuals who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. The program also gives those who are approved work authorization, and the approvals can be renewed.

Under the Obama administration, DACA applicants had to be physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012 and living continuously here since June 15, 2007, in order to qualify, among other requirements. That’s still the case for the limited number of people who are still eligible for the program under the Trump administration, which has sought to end it. 

The Trump administration announced on Sept. 5, 2017, that it would “wind-down” the program by only processing renewals that expire by March 5 and not accepting any new applications. Trump called on Congress to come up with a permanent legislative solution.

At this point, the program does not accept new applications — except “from individuals who previously received DACA and whose DACA expired before Sept. 5, 2016, or whose most recent DACA grant was previously terminated,” as explained by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Also, those already in the program, or whose DACA authorization expired on or after Sept. 5, 2016, can apply to renew their DACA status.

Those exceptions were granted by the Trump administration pending the outcome of a legal challenge to the president’s 2017 decision to rescind the program.

That means that no one currently crossing the border illegally would have been eligible for DACA as it existed under Obama. And such immigrants still aren’t eligible for the program under Trump.

At the April 2 background briefing for reporters, a senior administration official said the possibility of DACA legislation encourages illegal immigration. That’s an opinion, but the fact is that those currently crossing the border illegally are not eligible for DACA — so they cannot “take advantage of DACA,” as Trump claimed.

‘Caravans’ Coming?

In an Easter morning tweet, Trump also warned that illegal immigration was “getting more dangerous,” citing “caravans” of people coming to the Southwest border. On April 2, he repeated the warning and demanded that Mexico “must stop them” and “not allow them to pass through into our country, which has no effective border laws.”

He again mentioned the caravans on April 3.

The president is referring to the annual caravan organized by the activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), which says it provides humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, and works for their rights.

We spoke with Irineo Mujica Arzate, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Mexico, who told us this year’s caravan includes about 1,150 people, with about 80 percent of them from Honduras. That’s by far the largest caravan in the approximately 10 years the group has been organizing such events and “a big shock,” he said.

The recent election in Honduras may be a factor. In January, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez was sworn in for a second term after a disputed election, which led to protests in which 30 people were killed, according to Reuters. Both Mexico and the United States supported Hernandez. 

Last year’s caravan included about 300 people, with about 60 to 80 of those actually reaching the U.S. border at Tijuana, Arzate said.

He expects that many in the caravan now won’t reach the border this year either, and he says many want to stay and work in Mexico. “Mexico is not just a place to pass through anymore,” he said, noting that there are “a lot of intentions” among those in the caravan.

Others will get to the border, realize how difficult it is to enter the United States, and either go back to their home countries or stay in Mexico, he said. Some may try to seek asylum in the U.S. In fact, CNN reported that another member of Pueblo Sin Fronteras said the migrants would do that.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras doesn’t want to “storm people into the country,” Arzate told us, but instead make migrants aware of their options, try to reform the systems in Mexico and the U.S., and try to find “sensible ways” for them to “live without fear.”

The Associated Press reported on April 3 from Mexico that the caravan has spent the past several days in the town of Matias Romero in the state of Oaxaca. That’s more than 2,000 miles from Tijuana and more than 800 miles from Brownsville, Texas. “After days of walking along roadsides and train tracks, the organizers now plan to try to get buses to take participants to the final event, an immigrants’ rights conference in the central state of Puebla later this week,” the AP reported, writing that the caravan is more of a symbolic event meant to draw attention to migrants’ issues.

The Mexican government said in an April 2 press release that it had deported about 400 of the caravan participants to their home countries, and that it would offer refugee status in qualified cases. It called the caravan a “public demonstration” and said it had been keeping the U.S. government informed about the issue, as it had in previous years.

As for the asylum process in the United States, those crossing the border without proper documentation can apply for asylum if a U.S. official finds they have a “credible fear” of prosecution or torture if they return to their home countries, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (If an asylum officer doesn’t find there’s a credible fear, the immigrant can request a review by an immigration judge. If the judge agrees with the officer, the immigrant can then be removed from the U.S.) Those with credible fear are still placed in expedited removal proceedings, according to USCIS.

Asylum cases have high denial rights, and getting a hearing can take years. In fiscal year 2017, 61.8 percent of the asylum decisions were denials, according to data compiled by TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University. And the denial rates for Honduras, 78.1 percent, and Mexico, 88 percent, were even higher.

Fox News aired a segment Sunday morning on the caravan before the president tweeted about the issue, and Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council union, said those seeking asylum would be able to stay in the United States while their cases slowly worked their way through the system. While waiting, asylum applicants can be detained or granted “humanitarian parole” if they meet certain standards. (The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration over detainment policies, arguing that five Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices “have almost entirely stopped granting parole since early 2017.”)

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Distorts the Facts
"Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release."
Sunday, April 1, 2018
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They Are Not Eligible
"These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!"
Sunday, April 1, 2018
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Not the Whole Story
Says “caravans” of people from Central America are coming to the Southwest border and that Mexico “must stop them.”
Monday, April 2, 2018