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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Family Separation Spin in Nevada

A misleading Spanish-language TV ad from a group backing President Donald Trump claims that then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden “separated families and put children in cages” while it shows images of minors who were temporarily detained after crossing the southern border on their own — without a parent or guardian.

Immigration experts say that some families who illegally migrated to the U.S. together were separated under the Obama administration, but there was no blanket policy to criminally prosecute the parents and, therefore, separate them from their children, which is what happened early in the Trump administration. A 2019 report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general also said that “historically” such family “separations were rare and occurred because of circumstances such as a parent’s medical emergency or a determination that the parent was a threat to the child’s safety.”

The Committee to Defend the President, a pro-Trump hybrid group that can operate as a super PAC and a traditional political action committee, reported spending $225,000 to run the ad attacking Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, in Nevada starting on Feb. 19, just three days before the state’s Democratic caucuses. As of Feb. 21, it had aired at least 70 times combined in Las Vegas and Reno, according to Advertising Analytics.

The Census Bureau estimates that about 30% of Nevadans are Hispanic or Latino.


As a female narrator speaks in Spanish, viewers see a translation that reads: “Barack Obama & Joe Biden promised to reform immigration. We didn’t know, it was a lie. They separated families and put children in cages. Barack Obama & Joe Biden failed. Now, Joe Biden is promising to reform immigration… is he lying again?”

At the same time, black and white images on screen show young people, some with foil blankets, sleeping on thin mats inside of chain link enclosures. However, the images are not of children whom Obama-era border officials separated from their families, as the ad could lead voters to believe. Instead, the Associated Press images — which were originally in color — show some of the tens of thousands of mostly Central American minors who were apprehended while crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without any parent in 2014.

The unaccompanied children were taken to a “makeshift border-town processing center” in Nogales, Arizona, according to a June 2014 story in the Arizona Republic that included the photos of them “behind 18-foot-high chain-link fences topped with razor wire.”

“The Nogales facility is a way station where the children are identified, examined for health problems by the U.S. Public Health Service, vaccinated and then moved to other facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and California until they are placed with relatives already in the country to await their day in Immigration Court,” the article explained.

Jeh Johnson, who was the secretary of the Department Homeland Security at the time, said in June 2019 that such facilities were erected quickly because the administration needed a place to temporarily hold the children who were coming in such large numbers. And “they put those chain link partitions up,” he said, “so you could segregate young women from young men, kids from adults, until they were either released or transferred to HHS,” or the Department of Health and Human Services, as required by law.

While the narrator of the anti-Biden commercial says that Obama and Biden “separated families and put children in cages,” a citation at the top of the screen reads, “Source: AP News 5/30/18.” An AP fact-check published that day said that critics of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in family separations at the border had wrongly circulated the photos taken at the Arizona border facility in 2014, under Obama, as if they were from 2018, under Trump.

But even that fact-check noted that an AP caption on the photos “refers to U.S. efforts to process 47,000 unaccompanied children at the Nogales center and another one in Brownsville, Texas.”

Immigration experts previously told us that family separations did occur under Obama, but not at the same scale as they did under Trump. One of those experts was Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

In an explainer piece for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s website in June 2018, Brown and her co-author, Tim O’Shea, wrote that prior to Trump: “Some children may have been separated from the adults they entered with, in cases where the family relationship could not be established, child trafficking was suspected, or there were not sufficient family detention facilities available. … However, the zero-tolerance policy is the first time that a policy resulting in separation is being applied across the board.”

That was later confirmed by the HHS inspector general’s January 2019 report, which found that such separations were “rare” and had largely occurred if the parent had a “medical emergency” or was deemed a “threat to the child’s safety.” That changed under Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, which “separated large numbers of alien families, with adults being held in Federal detention while their children were transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),” the report said.

But the anti-Biden ad by the pro-Trump group mentions none of that, and instead misleadingly uses images of unaccompanied minors to illustrate a claim about Biden separating families.

The Trump administration has identified more than 4,300 children it says were affected by its policies, according to a Jan. 13 court filing in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. DHS couldn’t provide us with any statistics on how many children may have been separated from their parents under the Obama administration.

The HHS inspector general said that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that assumes responsibility for the children once they are separated from their parents, had only “begun informally tracking separations in 2016.”