Column: On child separations, Trump administration shows how to lie with numbers


During her appearance Monday at a White House news briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen cited a horrifying statistic to justify the Trump administration’s policy of ripping children away from adults at border crossings.

“In the last five months, we have a 314% increase in adults and children arriving at the border, fraudulently claiming to be a family unit,” Nielsen told reporters. She repeated the figure a few minutes later:

“The kids are being used by pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers,” she said. “Again, let’s just pause to think about this statistic: 314% increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit. Those are traffickers, those are smugglers. That is MS-13. Those are criminals and those are abusers.”


If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.

— Atty. Ge. Jeff Sessions

In other words, Nielsen implied, the administration isn’t separating children from their parents—it’s protecting them from child smugglers and MS-13 gang members.

This is rapidly emerging as one of the go-to arguments deployed by the Trump administration in defense of its family separation policy. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in May when he announced his “zero-tolerance” border policy. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Here’s the problem: That statistic, 314%, is misleading to the point of being a lie. Watching Nielsen’s briefing on television, I waited for the reporters in the room to call her on it by demanding the hard figure — based on the rule of thumb that anyone who cites a percentage in isolation, without divulging percentage of what, is hiding something.

Consider: 314% of 100 is 314. But if one started with, say, 10,000 child smuggling cases, a 314% increase would mean 31,400 additional cases in five months, for a legitimately appalling total of 41,400.

I waited in vain for a reporter in the room to pick up on that, even when Nielsen repeated the percentage. But no one did, possibly because there were so many misstatements coming from Nielsen that it was hard to keep track. Fortunately, Philip Bump of the Washington Post did pick up on it, and demanded the hard figures from Nielsen’s agency. Here’s what they showed.

In fiscal 2017, which spanned October 2016 through Sept, 30, DHS recorded 46 cases of “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units.” In the first five months of the 2018 fiscal year (October through February), there were 191 cases. That’s an increase of 315.2%, to be precise.


How serious is this phenomenon, as immigration cases go? That’s the key context that exposes the argument by Nielsen and Sessions essentially as a fraud. Monthly figures released by DHS indicate that 75,622 family units had been apprehended at the border in fiscal 2017, and 31,102 in the first five months of this fiscal year.

In other words, alleged child smuggling accounted for 0.6% of apprehensions at the border in the first five months of this fiscal year. That’s an increase from the rate in the last fiscal year, when it was 0.06%, but an increase from a very small number.

And it’s swamped by the total number of border apprehensions, as well as by the number of child separations: In the six weeks from April 19 through May 31, DHS says, 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adult guardians who were prosecuted for entering the country illegally.

How the DHS determines that a family unit is “fake,” much less that it’s reflective of smuggling or trafficking, is unclear. But as Bump observes, even if every “fake” family apprehension is a smuggling case, it’s a tiny share of the total.

The administration plainly has an interest in making child smuggling appear as an enormous problem requiring zero-tolerance enforcement. But the numbers don’t support that and you shouldn’t believe it. The explanation for the Trump administration’s horrifying policy must lie elsewhere.

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