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Trump went on national TV and lied to Americans about immigrants

Fact-checking Trump’s first Oval Office address.

President Donald Trump addressed the nation in his first-prime address from the Oval Office this week, repeating a number of lies about immigration to buoy his demands for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Democrats have refused to fund. (Photo credit: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump addressed the nation in his first-prime address from the Oval Office this week, repeating a number of lies about immigration to buoy his demands for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Democrats have refused to fund. (Photo credit: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

President Trump on Tuesday night delivered an address to the nation, warning of a supposed “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border that only a wall could fix.

Early reports suggested Trump might use the address to declare a state of emergency at the border, though he avoided addressing that topic directly.

Instead, in his address, broadcast live on several networks, the president tried to convince the American people — who largely have rejected the idea — of the need to construct a southern border wall estimated to cost more than $21.6 billion, depending on materials. Democrats have pointedly refused to provide funding for this wall, which led to a clash on Capitol Hill last month and a subsequent government shutdown.

Hours ahead of the speech, the Make America Great Committee, Trump’s official PAC, also sent out an email fundraising off the speech, asking supporters to help him “raise $500,000 in ONE DAY.”

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On Tuesday night, Trump relied on the same false and misleading talking points that have long been standard fare from his administration. His nearly 10-minute speech paralleled a Department of Homeland Security slideshow for congressional leaders released earlier this month, outlining what it called a “crisis” at the border.

That crisis, however, was largely created by the Trump administration itself. DHS insisted, for instance, that more undocumented immigrants were crossing the border than ever. Official numbers don’t support that claim.

Trump nonetheless seized on that false talking point, along with several others Tuesday night, to offer a fearmongering spiel about the situation at the border.

CLAIM: More undocumented people are crossing the border than ever

FACT CHECK: False

Trump claimed Tuesday that there was an urgent need for a wall — one made of steel — to avert the massive influx at the southern border.

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“We have requested more agents, immigration judges, and bed space to process the sharp rise in unlawful migration fueled by our very strong economy,” he said.

Since the early 2000s, however, illegal border crossings have dropped significantly, from approximately 1.6 million to just 310,000 in 2017. Border crossings at the southwest border alone were approximately 304,000, with the remaining 3,600 and 3,000 occurring at the coastal and northern borders, respectively, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

USA Today notes that a chunk of that decline can actually be attributed to domestic jobs drying up during the recession — which usually attract foreign workers — as well as, more recently, fear over Trump’s racist crackdowns on immigration more broadly.

CLAIM: Criminals are pouring into the United States, unabated

FACT CHECK: False

Both Trump and his administration have repeatedly used this particular line of attack to assert that there is a “crisis” at the border.

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“Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now,” Trump claimed Tuesday night, before rattling off a list of victims, complete with gruesome descriptions of their deaths.

Additionally, in a fundraising email ahead of his speech Tuesday, the president claimed boldly that “illegal criminals [were] flooding our nation,” a version of his earlier claim that border officials in 2018 arrested “17,000 criminals trying to get across the border.”

The Washington Post noted that number was misleading. While CBP arrested approximately 16,831 people convicted of crimes between October 2017 and August 2018, 63 percent were detained at legal ports of entry. Not all of the convictions were violent — the majority, in fact, were for drunk driving or previous attempts at entering the country.

Approximately 600 of those stopped at various entry points in Fiscal Year 2018 were convicted of violent crimes, far lower than Trump has suggested.

Numerous studies have also shown immigrants as a group are far less likely to commit criminal acts than U.S. citizens. In the last year alone, four separate studies suggested there was no direct link between illegal immigration and violent or non-violent crime rates over the last three decades.

“There’s no wave of crime being committed by the immigrant community,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told NPR. “As a matter of fact, a lot of the violent crime that we’re dealing with is being committed by people that are born and raised right here in the United States.”

CLAIM: We need a wall, because gangs like MS-13 poses a dire threat to U.S. citizens

FACT CHECK: Mostly false

Trump has not shied away from linking immigrants and criminality in the past. Specifically, he has suggested — with no proof — that Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists and drug dealers. On Tuesday, he claimed that dangerous MS-13 gang members were killing scores of innocent Americans, summoning one young girl’s tragic murder in Maryland to argue in support of a wall.

Like his other claims, the suggestion that MS-13 poses an immediate and major threat to U.S. citizens has little basis in reality. While the Salvadoran street gang currently boasts between 40,000 and 70,000 members, Insight Crime explains, the majority are concentrated in “mostly urban areas in Central America or locations outside the region where there is a large Central American diaspora.”

The United States has identified a number of MS-13 gang members within the United States as well, but the numbers are much slimmer — between 8,000 and 10,000, according to the FBI. That means MS-13 makes up less than 1 percent of all U.S. gang membership.

Insight Crime notes that the gang has tried to assert more influence inside prisons along the U.S. East Coast, with “emissaries in places as far away as Boston who are trying to corral the rudimentary and undisciplined gang cliques.” However, the overall threat to average U.S. citizens is minor compared to other violent groups or extremist organizations, such as those on the far-right, who are far more widespread.

CLAIM: The wall will stop drugs from pouring into the country

FACT CHECK: False

The Trump administration has a history of skewing the facts on drugs in the United States, to push the president’s border wall demands. Tuesday was no different, with the president himself suggesting both in his fundraising email and speech that drugs were pouring into the country across the border, “poisoning” innocent Americans.

“Every week 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border,” Trump said Tuesday night.

That statement, however, is misleading — the raw numbers paint a much different picture.

DHS officials claimed in their slide show last week, for example, that 1.7 million pounds of narcotics were seized by CBP agents in Fiscal Year 2018. Those figures did not match up with the numbers on CBP’s website, which showed a substantially lower total — 47,945 pounds of cocaine and 67,292 pounds of methamphetamine seized in FY18, versus DHS’ claim of 282,000 pounds of cocaine and 248,000 pounds of methamphetamine.

While those numbers still might seem high, it’s important to note the vast majority of those drugs are being brought into the United States through legal ports of entry — meaning a wall would do nothing to slow things down.

CLAIM: Undocumented immigrants steal American jobs

FACT CHECK: False

Trump relied on a number of tried and true anti-immigrant talking points Tuesday night as well. Among those was the popular trope of the job-stealing immigrant.

“[Illegal immigration] strains public resources and drives down jobs and among those hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic Americans,” Trump claimed.

A 2017 report by the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based nonpartisan think-tank, contradicts that statement. According to the Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, immigrants both documented and undocumented typically fill positions that U.S. citizens refuse to take, rather than “stealing” work Americans find desirable.

“The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low,” she wrote. “Immigrant labor does have some negative effects on the employment and wages of native-born high school dropouts…and also on prior immigrants, because all three groups compete for low-skilled jobs and the newest immigrants are often willing to work for less than their competition. However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do.”

She added, “Fixing immigration is not about mass deportations of people but about creating a legal visa system for jobs Americans do not want.”

CLAIM: Thousands of terrorists are coming into the country through the U.S.-Mexico border

FACT CHECK: False

While Trump did not mention this claim directly in his speech Tuesday night, his administration attempted to push the falsehood earlier in the week, and in the days leading up to it.

This claim has bounced around conservative circles for years, recently making its way into DHS talking points. The White House itself repeated the claim Friday, with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggesting CBP had arrested nearly 4,000 suspected terrorists last year alone.

The DHS talking point, however is misleading. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tal Kopan noted last week, the data DHS uses to justify this claim has never been provided previously and applies mostly to air travel.

The 4,000 figure is also vastly overblown, as NBC News reported Tuesday. According to CBP data, fewer than 140 people cited on CBP’s Terrorist Screening Database were stopped at the U.S. northern and southern borders between October 2017 and March 2018.

Ninety-one people were stopped at the northern border during that time period, 41 of them non-citizens or residents. Of the 41 people stopped at the southern border, 35 were U.S. citizens or lawful residents. Just six were classified as “non-U.S. persons.”

Former Obama administration national security official Ned Price noted many of those intercepted at the border were stopped simply because their names matched those on the Terrorist Screening Database.

“The number of people on such lists ballooned in the years after 9/11, with some reports indicating that more than one million names had been associated with suspected terrorist activity. That’s why false-positives, including in the case of crossings at our southern border, are commonplace,” he told NBC News.