PolitiFact and PunditFact fact-check the debate over immigration
Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg July 28, 2014
By Derek Tsang July 28, 2014

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

Politicians and 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.

PolitiFact and PunditFact have been fact-checking their claims, and we’ve found that there’s more than a little misinformation going around. Here’s a summary of some of our recent work.

Obama’s 2012 policy

One of the consistent talking points among conservatives discussing the thousands of kids arriving at the U.S. border is that President Barack Obama’s 2012 immigration policy is responsible.

The policy allowed certain young people without legal status to apply for a two-year deferral of any removal proceedings. Though it does not apply to people just now crossing the border, conservatives say it gave children and their families the idea that they could try. And so they have.

"This president and his administration knew what was happening with the issuance of the executive order in 2012, which created these children coming across," Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs said recently.

There is a problem with the claim, however. The dates don’t line up as neatly as people are letting on.

Last month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service published month-by-month statistics of children being processed at the border. What the data shows is that the number of children being processed at the border was steady between October 2008 and January 2012. The numbers then started to rise between January and April 2012 then plateaued until January 2013. From there, the number of children coming to the border grew exponentially.

Why is that important?

Based on Congressional Research Service data, the rate of arrivals nearly doubled before Obama announced his new policy. While this doesn’t mean Obama’s policy played no role in the current flood of children arriving at the border, the policy itself didn’t create the current problem.

Dobbs’ claim rates Mostly False.

By the numbers

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the Republican Party’s most vocal advocates of federal action on immigration policy, recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal laying out a suggested course of action for addressing the thousands of undocumented Central American minors.

"Currently the vast number of children is overwhelming the process," he wrote with co-author Clint Bolick. "Roughly half do not show up for their hearings. As a result, judging by Homeland Security figures, only a fraction of the approximately 20,000 Central American children who entered the country illegally in 2013 were repatriated. By some estimates, as few as 2 percent of the 50,000 children who have crossed the border illegally this year have been sent home."

We’ve already looked at the number of minors who report for their hearings. (Bush's description of it as "roughly half" is not far off from what we found.)

But what about the number of children that the government has returned this year? Is it "as few as 2 percent"?

It’s surprisingly difficult to track down exact numbers, but from what we can gather, that number appears accurate, according to testimony made before a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing meeting on July 9.

That figure, though, is only useful as a snapshot of the current state of affairs; it is likely the number will rise as more and more of these children go through the legal process.

Further, Bush said the low number was a result of Central American children skipping their court appearances. Actually, it has more to do with how long the legal proceedings take.

We rated his statement Mostly True.

Health problems, maybe, but Ebola?

Some, like Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., have expressed concern about the impact the influx of immigrants could have on public health.

On July 7, 2014, Gingrey wrote a letter expressing these concerns to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The influx of families and unaccompanied children at the border poses many risks, including grave public health threats," Gingrey wrote.

"As a physician for over 30 years, I am well aware of the dangers infectious diseases pose. In fact, infectious diseases remain in the top 10 causes of death in the United States. … Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning."

We don’t dispute that the conditions for newly arrived migrant children pose public health challenges. But Gingrey went well beyond that when he invoked Ebola, a particularly scary and untreatable disease with high mortality rates.

The reality is that Ebola has only been found in Africa -- and experts agree that, given how the disease develops, the likelihood of children from Central America bringing it to the U.S. border is almost nonexistent. But most importantly for our fact-check, Gingrey’s office was unable to point to solid evidence that that Ebola has arrived in Western Hemisphere, much less the U.S. border. To the contrary, the CDC and independent epidemiologists say there is zero evidence that these migrants are carrying the virus to the border.

We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

Spending on border security

Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to help the border situation, but leading Republicans have expressed skepticism.

"I'm not going to vote to approve $3.7 billion for the president to hire more lawyers and to squander in a way that he has designed," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa on Fox News. "There is nothing in this that actually secures the border. And until we stop the bleeding at the border, Bill, we are not going to solve this problem."

King has a point that a majority of the funding request would cover basic necessities for children crossing the border as well as additional resources for the legal process.

But somewhere between $177 million and possibly as much as $1 billion of the total request would be spent on items that can be described as aiding efforts to secure the border.

Because this is not a trivial amount, King is wrong to say it’s "nothing." We rated his claim Mostly False.

Violence back home

ABC pundit Cokie Roberts said the violence these children are leaving behind is astounding.

"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 is right that Honduras is more dangerous than New York, but on the specific numbers she offered, she’s wrong.

The claim rates Half True.

The 1 in 25,000 figure for New York represents the chances that 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.)

Apples to apples: Over a lifetime, the chances of being murdered in Honduras are 1 in 15, compared to 1 in 250 in New York.

When they get here

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly worried about the strain these children and others coming to the Untied States will put on the government.

"Our welfare system is strained to the limit now, so is the public school system," O’Reilly said. "About 50 percent of them lack a high school education. And more than 50 percent of immigrants from (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) use at least one major welfare program once they get here."

O’Reilly’s point about the use of welfare is correct when defining things by households and by including a broad definition of "welfare" that includes school lunch programs.

But looking at individuals would produce a different, lower percentage. Also, there is a wide disparity depending on what particular welfare program you’re looking at.

O’Reilly’s statement rates Mostly True.

Where they end up

Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan says California’s transformation from red to blue is thanks to an influx of immigrants and should serve as a cautionary tale for the national conservative agenda.

On The Sean Hannity Show, Buchanan noted that California Republicans are now outnumbered 2 to 1 in the state Legislature, 2 to 1 in Congress, and that no Republican holds a statewide office.

"Right now, one third of all the illegal aliens go to California. Take a look at California politically, which Richard Nixon carried five times and Ronald Reagan carried in four landslides," he said. "And when the country looks like California demographically, it’s going to look like California politically."

There’s no good data on where unauthorized immigrants are going after crossing the border, but we can estimate where they live.

According to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Research Center, anywhere from 21 to 25 percent of unauthorized immigrants live in California. Texas comes in second at around 16 percent.

So Buchanan is in the ballpark, but a bit high.

On politics, it’s hard to see a direct correlation simply between the number of unauthorized immigrants and election results.

California voted Republican for president from 1968-88 and has voted Democrat from 1992-2012. Of the state’s last six elected governors, three were Republican and three were Democrat.

Balancing that all out, Buchanan’s claim rates Half True.

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PolitiFact and PunditFact fact-check the debate over immigration