State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has long expressed concerns about illegal immigration. She sounded that theme anew Aug. 10 during an appearance on CNN, telling host Anderson Cooper that mothers who are illegal residents routinely have babies in the United States to "anchor" their families in this country.
"The fact is it is documented," Riddle said. "Over 81 percent of the babies that are born at LBJ Hospital right here in Houston are born of women who are not here legally. It is well-known that women come over here, cross the border in order to have the babies here because once they get here and once that little American citizen is born and becomes an anchor baby — look, I'm a grandmother of 10, I love children, but the fact is this is breaking the back of the taxpayers of Texas and the United States."
Eighty-one percent? Documented, well-known? We decided to check Riddle's claim, remembering that PolitiFact recently rated as Half True South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's statement that people come here to have babies and then leave.
While there's ample evidence that many illegal immigrants give birth in the U.S. every year, PolitiFact's research found that the incentive for illegal immigrants to come here is based more on economic hopes than quickie citizenship for U.S.-born babies.
Cooper grilled Riddle after she claimed that pregnant women were entering the U.S. as tourists to give birth to their children "with the nefarious purpose of turning them into little terrorists who will then come back to the U.S. and do us harm." Riddle didn't offer Cooper evidence to back up the claim, and when we contacted her, Riddle told us in an e-mail that she shouldn't have talked about the "terror babies," as they've come to be known.
"I demand proof when my opponents challenge my viewpoints, and it's reasonable to expect me to do the same," she said. "That doesn't mean the things I said aren't true; it just means that I shouldn't assert them as fact unless I'm prepared to show you the facts."
So what are the facts on the babies born at Houston's Lyndon Baines Johnson General Hospital to mothers who are not here legally?
Jon English, Riddle's legislative chief of staff, said she based her claim on an opinion article by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, published in the April 30 Houston Chronicle. Noting that Texas bears a cost from illegal immigration, Patrick wrote: "In recent years, 81 percent of babies born at the LBJ General Hospital were born to mothers who were here illegally."
Patrick's chief of staff, Logan Spence, told us that Patrick heard the 81 percent number from officials at the Harris County Hospital District, which oversees LBJ Hospital. However, six years of delivery data from the district did not confirm that statistic. Melinda Muse, a spokeswoman for the district, told us that Patrick's figure may have also included mothers who are legal immigrants as well as deliveries at Ben Taub General Hospital, the other hospital in the district that delivers babies.
In a search of newspaper stories, we found an Aug. 8, 2010, Dallas Morning News article which reported that 82 percent of the births at LBJ and Ben Taub in 2009 were to women who were not U.S. citizens. The article relied on Texas Health and Human Services Commission information derived from an emergency Medicaid program that reimburses hospitals for delivering the babies of poor women who lack U.S. citizenship.
But Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the commission, said that information included births to both legal and illegal immigrants. She said that the state doesn't know how many of the Medicaid mothers were undocumented.
We also found a September 2006 Houston Chronicle story on the rising number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America coming to South Texas to give birth. The article quoted Shannon Rasp, then a spokeswoman for the hospital district, as saying that "using anecdotal information provided us by our staff, statistics from other public hospital systems and our patient demographics, we believe that approximately 70 to 80 percent of our obstetrics patients are undocumented."
The best information we found to assess Riddle's statement was the district's six years of delivery data. A caveat: Delivery statistics refer to the number of women who give birth, not the number of babies born, which Riddle and Patrick were talking about. Deliveries of multiple children, like twins and triplets, mean that there are more babies than mothers in any given year.
About 85 percent of the 8,974 deliveries at Ben Taub and LBJ in fiscal 2010 — March 1, 2009, to Feb. 28, 2010 — were to noncitizens, which include both legal and illegal immigrants. Forty percent of those were at LBJ. Of those, 2,418 were to undocumented mothers.
That means that in fiscal 2010, 63 percent of total deliveries (3,818) at LBJ hospital were to undocumented immigrants. For fiscal 2009, that figure is 59 percent. Previous years saw higher percentages — 71 percent in 2008, 73 percent in 2007, 70 percent in 2006 and 69 percent in 2005.
Remember, those statistics are for mothers only. When we asked the hospital district for data that links babies born at LBJ with the immigration status of their mothers, Muse said the district doesn't keep that information. "Since all babies who are born in the hospital are American citizens, we don't link them to either documented immigrant or undocumented immigrant mothers," Muse said.
That means it is unlikely that Patrick accurately cited how many babies were born to undocumented immigrants because the hospital district doesn't have those figures. And Riddle was relying on Patrick's newspaper column when she made her claim.
In an e-mail, Patrick told us that if he was off "by a few percentage points, the big picture is still the same. The fact that the number ranges from 58 to 72 percent over the last several years at LBJ reinforces my message that the state of Texas cannot control its economic or cultural destiny until the border is secured."
Close but no cigar? According to the latest statistics at LBJ hospital, the proportion of deliveries to illegal immigrant mothers was 63 percent, not 81 percent. The average over the past six years: 68 percent. If Riddle had said those deliveries constitute a clear majority, she'd be on solid ground. But that's not the claim she made on national TV.
As PolitiFact has noted before, numbers matter — and when it comes to issues as fractious as immigration and so-called "terror babies," politicians have an obligation to be scrupulously accurate.
We rate her statement as False.