Fact Checkers Can't Handle the Truth

By Jessica M. Vaughan on July 25, 2016

Last Thursday evening, self-described fact-checkers for Politifact, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post mobilized as soon as the text of Donald Trump's nomination acceptance speech was leaked to challenge a series of immigration facts cited by the candidate. In their haste, or maybe it was their zeal, to try to de-bunk Trump's statements on immigration, they put out sloppy work and sometimes downright false evaluations.

The following are the Trump statements examined by Politifact and the Post:

The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

This statement is 100 percent true. According to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website, as of the end of June, with three months remaining in the 2016 fiscal year, 51,152 family units were apprehended crossing the border illegally. There were 39,838 family units apprehended in all of FY2015, more than 11,000 less than the 2016 partial total.

As per Obama administration policy, nearly all are released into American communities, regardless of the cost to local communities. The release policy was outlined in a statement by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on June 24, 2015. The statement is silent on the cost to local taxpayers, although these have been documented to reach hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide for education alone, not counting health care, housing and other public welfare services.

The DHS statement gives lip service to considerations of public safety, but these words are contradicted in policy and practice, as illustrated by another event mentioned by Trump in his speech. In January, 21-year old Sarah Root was killed by a Central American illegal alien named Eswin Mejia, who crashed into her car while drag racing drunk through the streets of Omaha. Mejia crossed the border illegally in 2013 as a minor, and was released according to Obama administration policy. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities declined to take Mejia into custody after two previous arrests, and after he killed Root, still refused to take him, despite five requests from Omaha police, because he "did not meet ICE's enforcement priorities".

In their rapid response to Trump's speech, Washington Post writers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee dismissed the Trump statement as "another cherry-picked number". They wanted readers to focus instead on the total number of apprehensions at the border, which they pointed out was also higher than last year, but lower than 2012-2014.

But Trump's statement appropriately ties the rising number of illegally-arriving families and minors with the policy that allows for their release into American communities. Top Border Patrol officials, too, have linked this catch-and-release policy to the rising numbers. In contrast, most other illegal border crossers are promptly repatriated, and thus impose no public safety or fiscal cost on local communities. The Post's redirection is inapt. Besides, it does not change the fundamental truth of Trump's statement.

Kessler and Lee also want their readers to know that the released Central Americans are requesting asylum ("or intend to"), as if that somehow mitigates the impact of the numbers.

Melanie Mason of the Los Angeles Times reported (at 7:28 p.m., before Trump had even spoken) that Trump was "essentially correct here". But, she noted, if you "adjust" how you count the numbers according to the calendar year instead of the fiscal year, and count only January through June (six months instead of the nine counted by Trump and the federal government) the number is less than all of 2015! OK then, I guess the next time I don't like how high some numbers are getting, I'll just count fewer of them!

Mason also wanted to comfort her readers with the knowledge that, "overall, however, the number of people living in the country illegally has essentially leveled out since 2007." As proof, she included a graph showing that the population of illegal aliens dropped sharply after 2007, grew noticeably from 2009-2011, then decreased, and has gradually inched up again until 2014. Never mind that the graph pre-dates the time period Trump was talking about (2015-16). And, new Census data reveal that illegal immigration surged significantly in 2014 and 2015.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.

This statement is 100 percent true. Like the previous one, it comes directly from a federal government source, this time from ICE. According to the June 20, 2016, edition of "Weekly Departures and Detention Report", the number of non-detained convicted criminal aliens on the Post Final Order Docket was 176,126.

The Post's Kessler and Politifact's Miriam Valverde both contacted me about the statement. I sent them the document linked above.

In an article published at 2:36 a.m. on the morning after the speech, Valverde declared the statement "Mostly True". She attributed Trump's numbers to me (not ICE), noting that the Center "favors more strict immigration policies".

Valverde went on to justify the "mostly true" characterization by noting that "experts say there is some important context." The first expert she quoted, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera of the Pew Research Center (no parenthetical offered on their slant), noted that the 180,000 includes deportable aliens whose countries won't take them back. Yes, it does, but as I told Valverde several hours later, according to ICE statistics I had given her, in 2015 those cases made up about 10 percent of the releases, and thus are not particularly representative of the total, so how is that vital context that materially affects the truth of the statement?

Valverde next quoted Nestor Rodriguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas (no descriptive language other than "sociology professor" needed for the reader to understand his slant). He told Valverde that the 180,000 included "many young mothers with small children who seek asylum ... looking for informal jobs to support their families." That is quite obviously wrong (the ICE document clearly labels these cases "convicted criminals" who have concluded their immigration hearings).

Some hours after I wrote Valverde to point out these errors, she got back to me saying that Rodriguez has retracted his "expert" comment on the mothers. She added a statement from ICE, saying that the agency makes release decisions on a "case by case basis". Right, just like Root's killer, Eswin Mejia, and just like MS-13 members Henry Ernesto Dominguez-Vasquez and Juan Moises Aguirre Zelaya, awaiting trial for the murder of another "unaccompanied" teen in Loudoun County, Va., and just like Osmin Antonio Murcia, now incarcerated in Massachusetts for slashing with intent to murder another teen last Halloween.

Valverde issued a correction, but did not change the "mostly true" rating.

Glen Kessler's commentary in the Washington Post was also sloppy and full of errors, not to mention astonishingly blasé about crime and public safety. Kessler wrote that Trump's statement on the 180,000 at-large deportable criminal aliens "sounds worse than it really is." Glen, tell that to the mother of Casey Chadwick, who was killed by one of them.

Kessler then wrote: "The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, so Trump cannot easily claim all of these illegal immigrants are threatening." Though Trump was speaking about criminal aliens who have not been removed, Kessler cited ICE statistics on criminal aliens who were removed to try to show that these 180,000 aliens who are still here are not particularly threatening to anyone.

If Kessler had done a simple internet search on "crimes of released criminal aliens", he would have found pages of links to various articles, not only on the CIS website, where we have published ICE's enumerations of the crimes committed by aliens released in the last several years (see here, here, and here), but also in widely circulated investigative reports in the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.

We have even published a map of where the homicide convicts were released, and another report on the 124 homicides that have taken place after ICE released them.

After I sent these links to Kessler, he added them as an "Update".

Kessler & Lee and Valverde also botched a fact-check earlier in the week on Sen. Jeff Session's statement in a convention speech noting that "there are about 350,000 people who succeed in crossing our borders illegally each year." Politifact declared the statement to be "False" and the Post said it was not supported by data. Both claimed to disprove Sessions' statement by quoting CBP data on border apprehensions numbering 337,117 in 2015, and statements from various advocates and scholars saying that apprehensions had recently declined. But the federal government data on apprehensions counts only those aliens who are caught. Sessions was referring to aliens who succeed. It is generally accepted by experts and Border Patrol agents that only about half of all the aliens who attempt to cross the border illegally are caught, meaning an equal number probably get through. This was reported in a Washington Post story with the headline "Study: The U.S. stops about half of illegal border crossings from Mexico". So Sessions was right; if apprehensions are running at about 337,000, then about 350,000 likely are getting through.

I sent the information to Kessler and Lee, but they did not issue an "Update".