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Trump’s acting chief of Homeland Security has framed the immigration crisis as a flood of “fake families” coming across the border with the help of drug cartels and human trafficking rings.
“These increased border numbers, and specifically the dramatic increase in family units, are a direct response to the weaknesses in our laws that are well-known and exploited by smugglers,” the nominee, Kevin McAleenan, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. He even called advertisements for child smuggling organizations “ubiquitous in Central America.”
But there’s a problem with McAleenan’s testimony: Much of it was based on creative readings of misleading data.
McAleenan said that ICE identified more than 4,800 fraudulent families — but he didn’t specify over what time period. If McAleenan was citing figures from last month, those “fake families” comprise less than 5% of the more than 88,000 families apprehended along the border in May. And Border Patrol has apprehended nearly 330,000 families during the current fiscal year, which began last October. In that case, the 4,800 families McAleenan cited would represent a little over 1% of all family arrivals.
McAleenan also didn’t clarify whether any of the fraudulent family units included groups with a child traveling with a relative other than their parent, like a cousin, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. But he did refer to a DNA testing pilot program that attempted to weed out fake families arriving at the border.
McAleenan said the program, which ran for three days and involved 109 families, found 17 cases of fraud: “a 15% return.” But his own testimony suggested it’s not accurate to claim that 15% of the families crossing the border are fake. Those 109 families weren’t randomly selected, he later said. Instead, Border Patrol agents specifically screened family units they suspected were fake.
And it’s not just fake families taking advantage of the system at the border, according to McAleenan. He also repeatedly said that the families who legally cross the border don’t show up to their court hearings.
Both McAleenan and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the committee, suggested that 90% of asylum seekers released from ICE custody don’t show up for their court hearings. But McAleenan changed his tune after Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin cited data showing that 92% of asylum seekers who filed claims between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 did show up to court.
“You’re using specific types of data,” McAleenan told Durbin. “I’m going to give you additional data.”
McAleenan said that under the Family Case Management Program, more than 100 people with final orders of removal — asylum seekers who lost their cases — didn’t show up to be removed. The 2016 program, which provided certain asylum seekers with caseworkers to educate them on their rights and responsibilities, lasted for about a year. In that time, the program served 954 people.
In other words, only 10-15% of asylum seekers who participated in the program were noncompliant. Though McAleenan answered Durbin’s question by talking about the Family Case Management Program, he later conceded that the 90% figure referred to something else altogether.
Nearly 90% of the approximately 7,000 families whose asylum cases have been handled in recent months skipped their hearings, McAleenan said, although he didn’t provide details on where that figure came from.
But Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, told VICE News that McAleenan was likely referring to cases handled by the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s family unit docket. Studies show that 86% of families released from ICE detention between 2001 and 2016 showed up in court.
“Less than 17% of cases placed on the family unit docket have ended because a family missed court,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “By leaving out the vast majority of cases, which are still pending, McAleenan gave the false impression that families don't show up for court.”
McAleenan’s testimony wasn’t the first time that members of the Trump administration, or Trump himself, have misrepresented or flat-out lied about immigration statistics. Stephen Miller, the architect of much of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, once said “thousands of Americans” die each year “because of threats at the southern border.” During the 2018 family separation crisis, McAleenan’s predecessor, Kirstjen Nielsen, said there had been a 314% increase in fake families at the border.
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, however, Graham called on Trump to formally nominate McAleenan, who has served as the acting head of DHS since Nielsen resigned in April, for the new secretary position. Nielsen was reportedly pushed out for not being tough enough on immigration.
“I cannot think of anybody I’ve ever met who is more capable of doing the job under difficult circumstances,” the senator said of McAleenan.
Cover image: Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)