Fact-checking claims about the current immigration crisis
The border crossing between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, at dusk. The border crossing between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, at dusk.

The border crossing between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, at dusk.

By Derek Tsang July 17, 2014

The influx of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border is pushing border security officials to their limits and putting pressure on President Barack Obama and Congress to take some sort of action.

Talking heads have been scrambling both to provide context for this surge of children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and to assign blame.

PunditFact has been fact-checking their claims, and we’ve found that there’s more than a little misinformation going around. Here’s a summary of our recent fact-checks on immigration.

Why Central Americans are leaving their countries

The influx of children at the border has invited a re-evaluation of the consequences of deportation. For ABC pundit Cokie Roberts, the staggering murder rates of Central America make immigration reform a moral no-brainer.

"I heard a report this week that in New York, your chances of getting murdered are 1 in 25,000," Roberts said on This Week. "In Honduras, it’s 1 in 14. You can’t send children back home to that."

Roberts got her statistic from economic analyst Steve Rattner, who used it first on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Rattner actually posted a corrected chart to his Twitter the same day -- but Roberts doesn’t tweet and didn’t see it.

The 1 in 25,000 figure for New York represents the chances than an individual is murdered in a year, whereas the 1 in 14 figure for Honduras represents the chances that an individual is murdered over the course of a lifetime. Both of these are also slight miscalculations.

Based on U.N. data on murder rates and life expectancy, the chances of getting murdered in Honduras are actually 1 in 1100 per year compared to 1 in 20,000 per year in New York. Over a lifetime, the chances of being murdered in Honduras are 1 in 15, compared to 1 in 250 in New York.

That makes Honduras more dangerous but not nearly to the levels Roberts described. We rated her claim Half True.

Legal immigration

On July 13’s Meet the Press, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum tried to draw a parallel between recent trends in illegal and legal immigration. "We are accepting more legal immigrants than we ever have in the history" of the United States, Santorum said.

Santorum’s right if you look at raw numbers decade by decade. Over the last 10 years, the United States has admitted an average of 1.076 million legal immigrants per year: more than any other 10-year period, by a hair.

Experts advised us, though, to look at new arrivals as a share of the U.S. population. By that metric, 1905-1914 -- when the total population was less than a third of what it is today -- is the leading time period. And when looking just at raw numbers year by year, the United States admitted more immigrants in 1907, 1990 and 1991. The 2013 tally -- 990,553 -- would rank 20th all time.

We rated Santorum’s claim Mostly False.

Obama’s purported promise to illegal immigrants

Santorum had plenty more to say about immigration. During the same Meet the Press roundtable, he claimed that children are crossing the border "because we have a president who said, ‘Hey, if you come, you’re going to be able to stay, because we’re not going to enforce the law.’ "

Obama did pass an executive order in 2012 that allowed certain young people without legal immigration status to apply for a two-year deferral of removal proceedings. That order, though, only applies to immigrants who have been in the United States continuously since at least 2007. Obama’s administration has also sent millions of people back to their home countries.

The closest thing we could find to support Santorum’s point was an open letter by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson where he underscores that Obama’s memo did not apply to new arrivals. The fact that Johnson had to write a letter suggested that Central Americans did draw hope from Obama’s executive order. Nevertheless, we rated Santorum’s claim Mostly False.

Did Obama plan the influx?

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh went even farther than Santorum, claiming, "six months ago, the (Obama) regime began planning how to transport tens of thousands of undocumented children from the border."

Not that the administration planned for the influx, but actually planned it. Limbaugh’s evidence was a request for contract service from early 2014 that projected about 65,000 children would need to be moved to temporary shelters. The surge is well on its way to that number; since October, 52,000 children have been caught crossing the United States border alone.

In reality, though, the rising number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border was well established by the end of 2013. Catholic relief workers and W. Ralph Basham, a past Homeland Security commissioner, told us that all the data pointed to a continued increase in 2014. Many of the factors behind the surge of children -- rampant South American violence, the U.S.’s limited capacity to send these children home quickly, and the belief that children who get over the border can stay -- lie outside of the control of the administration. No expert we reached gave any credence to Limbaugh’s allegations. We rated his claim Pants on Fire.

Changes in deportation policy

According to the Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, Obama’s reputation as "deporter-in-chief" is smoke and mirrors. The Obama administration "manipulated deportation data to make it appear that the Border patrol was deporting more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration," Dobbs said.

He pointed toward an appearance by Department of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson where he acknowledged that more than half of the deportations counted under the Obama administration would not have been counted under the Bush administration.

But that can be attributed to a shift in policy, not any sort of doctored data. The federal government calls an official order to leave the country a "removal." These can happen anywhere on American soil, and are what most people would consider a deportation.

There’s another term for people caught illegally crossing the border who are simply turned around: "return." Whereas removals bar someone from ever legally entering the United States, returns do not.

Under Obama, the new federal policy is to formally "remove" these "returns," who previously would have just been turned around. This strategy is rooted in previous administrations, and presents people trying to cross the border with more significant consequences and formal deportation orders. Whether you agree with the policy, those formal removals are occurring. We rated Dobb’s claim False.

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Fact-checking claims about the current immigration crisis