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U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is warning that relaxed immigration rules will put more drug smugglers than high school valedictorians on a path to citizenship.
"For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes, because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," King said. "Those people would be legalized with the same act."
The controversy started after an interview King gave the online conservative news service Newsmax about the DREAM Act, a provision aimed at legalizing young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country years ago by their parents.
King’s comments drew withering condemnation from his fellow Republicans as well as ardent advocates for reform.
Still, King stands by his words. About a week later, he doubled down in his comments: "You get one valedictorian per class per year," he said on CNN. "Every night there are dozens and scores of people that are smuggling drugs across our border. I've been down there multiple times. I've sat along the border at night."
We know of no databases that track undocumented valedictorians, nor drug runners by age and immigration status. We did ask King’s office for their data and received none. But we can sift through what evidence we did find.
First, despite what King said he learned from his evenings on the border, 80 percent of Border Patrol drug busts involve American citizens. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Center for Investigative Reporting got over 40,000 records where arrests were made.The center found that four out of five times, U.S. citizens were nabbed as smugglers.
Many of those involved small amounts, but Americans also predominated in larger drug seizures.
"When the person’s immigration status is noted, a U.S. citizen is involved in drug trafficking – including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine – 60 percent of the time," the reporters wrote. "For marijuana busts of 1,000 pounds or more, the percentage climbs to more than two-thirds."
The report paints a picture of traffickers engaging ordinary-looking whites who are less likely to attract attention and able to drive far more than 75 pounds of drugs across the border each trip.
There is no mention of the ethnicity or age of the arrested Americans across the full data set, but the point is, they are citizens. If they are citizens, the Dream Act is irrelevant.
A quick note about who in general would qualify under the Dream Act: With some exceptions, they would be people who were brought to America before they turned 15, can prove that they have lived in this country for at least five years, and have had no run-ins with the law. The easiest way to prove the five-years residency is through school records. By law, public schools may not deny anyone an education based on their immigration status.
The Migration Policy Institute estimated the number of people who would be eligible. Over three-quarters of them are young students, high school graduates, holders of a graduate equivalency diploma (GED), or have at least two years of higher-education. This amounts to more than 1.6 million people. Another 489,000 would become eligible if they got a GED.
King is probably right that valedictorians are as rare among this group as they are among the rest of the population.
But the numbers suggest that the great majority of Dreamers are in school or have worked to complete their education, leaving little time for drug-running sprints back and forth across the border.
King said he’s witnessed young people smuggling drugs from his time at the border. We also asked his office for an estimate of how many trips he made and didn’t hear back.
Meanwhile, we found an immigration expert who’s spent ten years conducting longitudinal studies in immigrant communities. Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has sought out undocumented young people in Chicago, Los Angeles and in communities in Texas. His Los Angeles work involved about 150 subjects, both high achieving students who went on to college, and an equal number who dropped out or barely completed high school.
Gonzales said King’s belief that Dreamers and drug smugglers overlap is misguided.
"If you just poke at it a little bit," Gonzales said, "it’s just really ridiculous."
By law, Dreamers must show that they’ve lived in the United States for five years. In Gonzales’s experience, drug smugglers would not make it over that hurdle.
Drug smugglers "are transient. They don’t have families. They’re not attached to the community," he said. "This whole immigration debate is about people with families. They are stayers. It’s a totally different population."
In a decade of research, Gonzales has found only a tiny percentage of undocumented immigrants got involved with crime, much less stayed involved with crime. "I’ve worked hard to reach a diversity of people, including the kinds of kids who are hard to reach," Gonzales said.
He’s said he’s not surprised that he hasn’t met more people involved in the drug trade because for all their struggles, the places he has spent time show more order and less chaos.
"If King’s ratio was right," Gonzales asks, "What would these communities look like?"
Bottom line: This is not a claim that can be proved one way or the other. King has chosen to compare two extremes, valedictorians and drug mules. He believes both types live in the same communities where the Dream Act would apply and that the bad guys far outnumber the good guys. No one tracks the immigration status of high school graduates. Drug runners, by definition, live in the shadows.
We found much information that suggests King is way off the mark, but those details aren’t necessarily hard and fast, either.
King predicted "the longer this dialogue goes, the more the American people will understand what I'm saying is factually correct." Among the people who already share King’s suspicions, that might be true. Beyond that, it seems unlikely.
Newsmax, Rep. Steve King slams Norquist over attacks on immigration, July 18, 2013
CNN, Rep. King defends immigration comments amid outrage, July 24, 2013
ABC News, Fact Check: Steve King says valedictorians and drug smugglers could be legalized, July 25, 2013
Roll Call, Steve King keeps calling immigrant kids ‘drug smugglers’, July 25, 2013
Center for Investigative Reporting, Four of five Border Patrol drug busts involve U.S. citizens, records show, March 26, 2013
Migration Policy Institute, DREAM vs. reality: An analysis of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries, July 2010
Interview with Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, July 26, 2013
National Research Council, Estimating illegal entries at the U.S.-Mexican border, 2013
Migration Policy Institute, Debunking the Myth of Immigrant Criminality: Imprisonment Among First- and Second-Generation Young Men , June , 2006
American Sociological Review, Learning to be illegal: Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood, August, 2011
Email interview with Susana Barciela, policy director, Americans for Immigration Justice, July 25, 2013
American immigration Council, Steve King’s tall tales about immigrants and crime don’t add up, July 25, 2013