AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s skewed picture of border perils
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump describes drugs flowing across the hinterlands from Mexico, a federal prison population laden with criminals who are in the U.S. illegally and a Texas city transformed by a border barrier into a safe place to live. It’s a misleading and in some ways false picture, and one that underpins his extraordinary declaration of a national emergency at the southern border.
Trump opened this past week with a rally in El Paso, Texas, and capped it with his emergency declaration Friday, a move taken to free up billions of dollars for a border wall that Congress refused to give him. Along the way, the president took unearned credit for developments in the auto industry, health care for veterans and trade with China.
As Trump played up the perils of illegal immigration, several Democrats went the other way, understating illegal crossings.
A look at a week of political rhetoric:
TRUMP: “I’ve built a lot of wall. I have a lot of money, and I’ve built a lot of wall.” — Rose Garden remarks Friday.
THE FACTS: He’s built no new miles of wall, lacking the money. His new construction to date has replaced existing barriers.
This month marks the start of construction of 14 miles (22 kilometers) of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the first lengthening of barrier in his presidency. That’s from money approved by Congress a year ago, most of which was for renovating existing barrier.
Money approved by Congress in the new deal to avert another government shutdown would cover about 55 more miles (88 km).
Trump often has often portrayed his wall, falsely, as largely complete, to a point where “Finish the wall” has become his rallying cry, replacing “Build the wall.” That masks a distinct lack of progress in physically sealing the border — a frustration that is now prompting him to find money outside the normal channels of congressional appropriation. Trump inherited about 650 miles (1,050 km) of physical border barrier from previous administrations.
TRUMP, on past presidents declaring national emergencies: “There’s rarely been a problem. They sign it; nobody cares. I guess they weren’t very exciting. But nobody cares. ... And the people that say we create precedent — well, what do you have? Fifty-six? There are a lot of times — well, that’s creating precedent. And many of those are far less important than having a border.” — Rose Garden remarks.
THE FACTS: Those declarations were rarely as consequential, and that’s precisely why they were mostly uncontroversial. He’s roughly correct about the numbers. But past declarations did not involve the unilateral spending of substantial sums of money that Congress — which holds the power of the purse — did not approve.
Emergency declarations by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were overwhelmingly for the purpose of addressing crises that emerged abroad. Many blocked foreign interests or terrorist-linked entities from access to funds. Some prohibited certain imports from or investments in countries associated with human rights abuses.
Trump’s number resembles findings from the Brennan Center for Justice , which has tracked 58 emergency declarations back to 1978.
“It’s extremely rare for a president to declare a national emergency in a bid to fund domestic construction projects, particularly one that Congress has explicitly refused to fund,” said Andrew Boyle, an attorney in the national security program at the center. “The ones that former presidents declared are of a different sort.”
Obama declared a national emergency in July 2011 to impose sanctions on transnational criminal groups, blocking any American property interests and freezing their assets, authorizing financial sanctions against anyone aiding them and barring their members from entering the United States. It authorized sanctions against criminal cartels in Mexico, Japan, Italy and Eastern Europe. It did not direct billions in spending by the U.S. treasury.
TRUMP: “And a big majority of the big drugs — the big drug loads — don’t go through ports of entry. They can’t go through ports of entry. You can’t take big loads because you have people — we have some very capable people; the Border Patrol, law enforcement — looking.” — Rose Garden remarks.
TRUMP: “We have tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country, much of it coming from the southern border. When you look and when you listen to politicians — in particular, certain Democrats — they say it all comes through the port of entry. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s just a lie. It’s all a lie.” — Rose Garden remarks.
THE FACTS: His own administration says illicit drugs come mainly through ports of entry. He has persistently contradicted his officials — never mind Democrats — on this point. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2018 report that the most common trafficking technique by transnational criminal organizations is to hide drugs in passenger vehicles or tractor-trailers as they drive into the U.S. at official crossings. They also use buses, cargo trains and tunnels, the report says, citing smuggling methods that would not be choked off by a border wall.
“Only a small percentage” of heroin seized by U.S. authorities comes across on territory between ports of entry, the agency says, and the same is true of drugs generally. The great majority of heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine and fentanyl is seized at ports of entry. Marijuana is one exception; significant quantities are seized between entry ports.
Even if a wall could stop all drugs from Mexico, America’s drug problem would be far from over. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 40 percent of opioid deaths in 2016 involved prescription painkillers. Those drugs are made by pharmaceutical companies. Some feed the addiction of people who have prescriptions; others are stolen and sold on the black market. Moreover, illicit versions of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have come to the U.S. from China, not Mexico.
TRUMP: “Take a look at our federal prison population. See how many of them, percentage-wise, are illegal aliens. Just see. Go ahead and see.” — Rose Garden remarks.
THE FACTS: About 40 percent of the people who entered federal prison in 2014 were foreigners, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The vast majority of the foreigners (20,842 of 28,821) were being held for immigration violations, not violent or property crimes. It’s not clear how many were in the country illegally. The federal prison population is not a solid yardstick of immigrant crime because it represents only 10 percent of the overall prison population of the U.S. Most people convicted of crimes are in state prison.
DEMOCRATS ON IMMIGRATION
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, Democrat of California: “Unauthorized border crossings are at their lowest levels in decades, about one-third of their peak levels two decades ago. If there were an emergency, the president wouldn’t have waited two years to make this political decision.” — tweet Thursday.
CALIFORNIA GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: “We are currently experiencing the lowest number of (illegal) border crossings since 1971.” — State of the State speech Tuesday.
THE FACTS: They’re wrong in saying illegal crossings are the lowest in recent decades, based on Border Patrol arrests, the most widely used gauge. That was true in the 2017 budget year, when Border Patrol arrests along the Mexican border fell to 303,916, the smallest number since 1971. But arrests jumped 31 percent last year, to 396,579. And in the 2019 budget year, which started in October, southern border arrests nearly doubled through January, to 201,497 from 109,543 the same period a year earlier.
Illegal crossings remain relatively low in historical terms but not as low as the Democrats said.
DEMOCRATIC SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR, a 2020 presidential candidate, responding to reports she can be a tough boss: “I was teasing President Obama the other day. They have hired, the White House hired, over 20 of my staff members. You only have about 25 in a Senate office. And a number of them have come back to me when they were over there. So that’s my story. I know I can be too tough sometimes. And I can push too hard, that’s obvious. But a lot of it is because I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work with me.” — interview Monday with MSNBC.
KLOBUCHAR CAMPAIGN: “She has many staff ... who have gone on to do amazing things, from working in the Obama Administration (over 20 of them) to running for office to even serving as the Agriculture Commissioner for Minnesota.” — statement to news media this month.
THE FACTS: Klobuchar is correct that more than 20 former staffers later worked for Obama, though not all in the White House, with some serving in his administration or on his 2008 campaign, according to a list provided to The Associated Press.
Among them are Jake Sullivan, a former chief counsel to Klobuchar who served in Obama’s State Department and was Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser; Rob Friedlander, a former Klobuchar press secretary who became a spokesman in the Obama Treasury Department; and Joe Paulsen, who worked on Klobuchar’s advance team and moved on to become an Obama aide and the president’s golfing buddy.
As for “a number of them” coming back to work for her again, three were identified by her campaign team.
They are Brigit Helgen, a former Klobuchar press secretary who served in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office in the Obama administration and returned as Klobuchar’s chief of staff; Hannah Hankins, a former special assistant who served as communications director and senior adviser for Obama’s Domestic Policy Council and returned as Klobuchar’s deputy chief of staff; and Andrea Mokros, a former Klobuchar deputy chief of staff who later managed scheduling and advance operations for first lady Michelle Obama. Mokros was an outside political consultant for Klobuchar for her 2018 Senate re-election campaign.
A survey of senators by the website LegiStorm from 2001 to 2016 found that Klobuchar’s office had the highest turnover in the Senate. A recent HuffPost article portrayed her as a demanding manager who lost some potential 2020 campaign staff members because of her reputation.
TRUMP: “A lot of car companies are coming back to the United States.” — Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
TRUMP: “We’re most proud of the fact — you look at the car companies, they’re moving back, they’re going into Michigan, they’re going into Pennsylvania, they’re going back to Ohio, so many companies are coming back.” — El Paso, Texas, rally Monday.
TRUMP: “We have massive numbers of companies coming back into our country — car companies. We have seven car companies coming back in right now and there’s going to be a lot more.” — remarks to reporters Feb. 6.
THE FACTS: There’s no such discernible influx. And at the end of this past week, industrial production numbers for January showed an 8.8 percent plunge in the making of motor vehicles and auto parts from the previous month.
Since Trump took office in 2017, auto manufacturing employment has risen by about 51,000 jobs to just over 1 million, according to the Labor Department. That’s a 5 percent increase over two years.
There have been new factory announcements, but excluding those that were planned before Trump took office, they don’t add up to seven.
Last month, Volkswagen announced plans to expand manufacturing in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Toyota is building a new factory in Alabama with Mazda, and Volvo opened a plant in South Carolina last year, but in each case, that was in the works before Trump took office.
Fiat Chrysler also has nebulous plans to return some pickup truck production from Mexico to suburban Detroit next year, and it may reopen a small Detroit factory to build an SUV. At least one Chinese automaker wants to build in the U.S. starting next year but hasn’t announced a site.
Against those uncertain and limited gains, GM is laying people off and plans to close four U.S. factories. Both GM and Ford also are letting go of white-collar workers in restructuring efforts.
TRUMP: “China’s paying us billions of dollars a year in tariffs.” — Rose Garden remarks.
THE FACTS: U.S. importers typically pay tariffs, not the exporting country. The cost is borne by U.S. business and often passed on to consumers, so the trade dispute is not generating a new source of wealth for the U.S.
After Trump imposed tariffs last year on roughly half the goods that the U.S. imports from China, Ford Motor Co. said the import taxes would raise its costs $1 billion through this year. Caterpillar said the steel tariffs would cost the company about $100 million in 2018.
TRUMP: “Another one they said could never get passed, they have been trying to do it for 40 years, we passed VA Choice. Veterans Choice. ... VA Choice, they would wait on line for days and weeks, they couldn’t see a doctor. Now, they go out, they have a choice. They get a private doctor, they have things taken care of, and we pay their bills.” — El Paso rally.
THE FACTS: He’s not the first president in 40 years to get Congress to pass a private-sector health program for veterans. And while it’s true the VA recently announced plans to expand eligibility for veterans in the Veterans Choice program, the program remains limited due in part to uncertain funding and longer waits. Contrary to Trump’s depiction, veterans still must wait “for days and weeks.”
The VA said this month it does not expect a significant increase in new appointments outside VA under the expanded program.
Congress first approved the program in 2014 during the Obama administration after some veterans died while waiting months for appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center. The program currently allows veterans to see doctors outside the VA system if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility. Now they are to have that option for a private doctor if their VA wait is only 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.
That is to start in June, under a law Trump signed last year to expand the Choice program. But the expanded Choice eligibility may do little to provide immediate help.
That’s because veterans often must wait even longer for an appointment in the private sector. Last year, then-Secretary David Shulkin said VA care is “often 40 percent better in terms of wait times” compared with the private sector. In 2018, 34 percent of all VA appointments were with outside physicians, down from 36 percent in 2017.
The VA also must resolve long-term financing due to congressional budget caps after the White House opposed new money to pay for the program. As a result, lawmakers could be forced later this year to limit the program, or slash core VA or other domestic programs.
Also key to the program’s success is an overhaul of VA’s electronic medical records to allow seamless sharing of medical records with private physicians, a process expected to take up to 10 years. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said full implementation of the expanded Choice program is “years” away.
GREEN NEW DEAL
TRUMP, on the effects of the Green New Deal floated by some Democrats: “You’re not allowed to own cows anymore.” He added that the plan would “shut down American energy” and “a little thing called air travel.” — El Paso rally Monday.
THE FACTS: The Democratic plan would do none of those things. Trump chose to ignore the actual provisions of the plan, which calls for a drastic drop in greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas but would not ban methane-emitting cows or air travel.
Instead, Trump took his cue from a fact sheet that was distributed by the office of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, then clumsily disavowed by her and replaced with a more accurate summary of the plan.
The first version described measures beyond those contained in the plan, such as: “Build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.” And it made the impolitic statement: “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, said that was meant as an ironic quip.
EL PASO CRIME
TRUMP, on the effect of a border wall on crime in El Paso: “When that wall went up, it’s a whole different ball game. ... I don’t care whether a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat. They’re full of crap when they say it hasn’t made a big difference. I heard the same thing from the fake news. They said, ‘Oh crime, it actually stayed the same.’ It didn’t stay the same. It went way down. ... Thanks to a powerful border wall in El Paso, Texas, it’s one of America’s safest cities now.” — El Paso rally.
THE FACT: Trump falsely suggests a dramatic drop in crime in El Paso due to a border wall. In fact, the city’s murder rate was less than half the national average in 2005, the year before the start of its border fence. It’s true that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows that El Paso’s annual number of reported violent crimes dropped from nearly 5,000 in 1995 to around 2,700 in 2016. But that corresponded with similar declines in violent crime nationwide and included periods when the city’s crime rates increased year over year, despite new fencing and walls.
Before the wall project started, El Paso had been rated one of the three safest major U.S. cities going back to 1997.
TRUMP, describing the crowd for a competing rally in El Paso, Texas, led by Beto O’Rourke, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate: “He has 200 people, 300 people, not too good. ... That may be the end of his presidential bid.” — El Paso rally.
THE FACTS: That’s far from true. O’Rourke’s march and rally drew thousands. Police did not give an estimate, but his crowd filled up nearly all of a baseball field from the stage at the infield to the edge of outfield and was tightly packed.
IMMIGRANTS-COSTS AND BENEFITS
TRUMP: “Illegal immigration hurts all Americans, including millions of legal immigrants, by driving down wages, draining public resources and claiming countless innocent lives.” — El Paso rally.
THE FACTS: These assertions are unsupported by research, which Trump appeared to acknowledge obliquely by making a crack about “phony stats.”
The weight of research on wages suggests that immigrants have not suppressed them, although it’s not cut and dried. What’s clear is that macro forces that go beyond immigration are at work in the sluggishness of wage growth: the decline in unionization, an intensified push to maximize corporate profits, growing health insurance costs that supplant wages and the rise of a lower-wage global labor force that in an intertwined worldwide economy can hinder pay growth for Americans.
On public resources, the National Academy of Sciences concluded: “An immigrant and a native-born person with similar characteristics will likely have the same fiscal impact.” The academy found that because state and local governments supply most of the money for public schools, immigrants often receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. But education produces children who grow into adults who get jobs, buy cars, buy houses and pay taxes and thereby contribute to economic growth. And succeeding generations of immigrant families become net contributors to government budgets, according to the study.
On the loss of lives, plenty of research challenges the assumption that people in the country illegally drive up violent crime. In one such study, sociologists Michael Light and Ty Miller reviewed crime in every state and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2014. They found that a rising number of immigrants in the country illegally corresponded with a drop, not a rise, in reported crime.
TRUMP: “We’re going to El Paso. ... We’re going there to keep our country safe, and we don’t want murderers and drug dealers and gang members, MS-13, and some of the worst people in the world coming into our country. ... We need a wall.” — White House remarks Monday.
THE FACTS: Trump suggests that weak border enforcement is contributing to vicious crime committed by MS-13, a gang held responsible for murders in cities across the U.S. But sealing the border completely would not eliminate the gang. It was founded in the U.S. in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants and has sunk roots in the country. Some of its members are U.S. citizens and not subject to deportation or border enforcement.
The government has not said recently how many members it thinks are citizens and immigrants. In notable raids on MS-13 in 2015 and 2016, most of the people caught were found to be U.S. citizens.
Associated Press writers Tom Krisher in Detroit, Will Weissert in El Paso, Texas, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, and Josh Boak, Colleen Long, Kevin Freking, Michael Balsamo and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.
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