5 things Trump got wrong about immigration in his State of the Union

Trump used the words "immigrant" and "immigration" a combined 13 times during the State of the Union
January 31, 2018, 4:00pm

President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday and, as expected, immigration was a major theme. Trump used the words “immigrant” and “immigration” a combined 13 times during his speech, more than infrastructure (six mentions), North Korea (eight mentions), terrorism (nine mentions), and other key issues from his first year in office.

Not surprisingly, several of Trump’s remarks on immigration contained information that was misleading or flat-out wrong.


Here’s a look at Trump’s five biggest distortions of truth:

“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.”

America’s borders are not “open” by any definition of the word. A Homeland Security report published in in September found “the southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.” The report estimated that just 170,000 people successfully crossed the border in 2016 compared to 1.8 million crossings in 2000.

The U.S. has spent an estimated $263 billion on immigration enforcement over the past three decades. The budget for Customs and Border Protection has more than doubled (from $5.9 billion to $13.2 billion per year) since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003. Annual spending on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has surged from $3.3 billion since the agency was established in 2003 to more than $6.1 billion today.

While Trump wants to build a wall along the border, the U.S. already has more than 650 miles of fencing, along with record levels of staff for ICE and CBP. The government has also spent more than $1 billion on drones and other technology to create a “virtual fence.”

“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes and our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied, alien minors.…”

One of the most dramatic moments of Trump’s speech came when he introduced the parents of Long Island teenagers who were murdered by members of the MS-13 gang. The murders were horrific and real, but Trump mischaracterized the bigger picture.


Of the unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest border since 2011, only 56 out of 250,000 were either suspected or confirmed to have gang ties in their home countries, according to the acting Border Patrol chief. That breaks down to 0.02 percent of all the kids who arrived at the border from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries. Altogether, ICE’s gang unit arrested 114,434 suspected gang members in 2016, but only 429 of them were MS-13 members. On Long Island, the Trump administration has been sued by the ACLU for rounding up Central American kids and falsely accusing them of gang membership, suggesting the already-low numbers might actually be inflated.

In reality, the vast majority of the people arriving at the southwest border aren’t members of MS-13 — they are innocents fleeing gang violence in their home countries. Affirmative requests for asylum of individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have increased by 25 percent in fiscal year 2017 compared to 2016. As Trump’s White House Chief of Staff John Kelly acknowledged in 2015, these people are mostly parents who are “trying to save their children.”

“Crucially, our plan closes the terrible loopholes exploited by criminals and terrorists to enter our country. And it finally ends the horrible and dangerous practice of catch and release.”

Border Patrol agents and immigration hardliners use the term “catch and release” to describe the practice of detaining border crossers and releasing them while they await their day in immigration court. It typically refers to mothers with young children and unaccompanied minors. Nearly 90 percent of these families have demonstrated a credible fear of persecution to DHS if they are deported back to their home countries, according to the ACLU.


As noted above, hardly any of these people are gang members, let alone terrorists. Trump wants to keep them locked up indefinitely, but it can take years for these cases to work their way through the system and government data shows that families who are not detained and have legal representation show up to court 98 percent of the time. Courts have repeatedly placed restrictions on the detention of asylum-seeking families and children and said kids need to be placed in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate for their age and needs.

“Under the current, broken system. A single immigrant can bring in unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”

Trump is referring to “chain migration,” his new buzzword for policies that allow legal immigrants to bring relatives into the country. Under the current law, U.S. citizens can only sponsor certain types of relatives for lawful immigration, including parents, siblings, children, and spouses. People with green cards can only bring their children and spouses. A processing backlog means it can take anywhere from five to 25 years or more, depending on the country and the type of family member, for the government to process a visa requests that would allow just one close relative to immigrate.

“In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration.”

Trump is referring to the October 2017 truck attack in New York City that killed eight people and the thwarted bombing at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in December. The Uzbekistani immigrant arrested for the truck attack did come through the diversity visa lottery, but there have been just four terrorism-related cases linked to the program since it was created and only one of those involved fatalities. Trump claimed that the truck attack brought more than 20 family members to the U.S. through chain migration, but it appears that number was actually zero.

The Bangladeshi immigrant accused of the attempted subway bombing came to the U.S. through family unification, but prosecutors say he was radicalized long after he arrived in the country — not in his homeland.

Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Win McNamee/Pool via Bloomberg)