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The facts behind the administration’s border ‘crisis’ claim

Ahead of his address on the government shutdown and border wall, President Trump tweeted that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border was a humanitarian and national security crisis. Meanwhile, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that the “crisis is getting worse.” But are these statements true? Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff for a look at the facts.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, even before President Trump's address tonight, his administration has been making a case that there is a crisis on the southern border, a national security and a humanitarian crisis.

    Vice President Mike Pence spoke to reporters yesterday alongside Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. She said the crisis is getting worse.

    "NewsHour"'s Amna Nawaz is here with a look at the facts.

    Amna, you have been looking at this in-depth. First of all, how do we define crisis, and is it our sense that there is a terrorist threat at the border, as the White House is suggesting?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, first of all, we're following the administration's lead on this, right?

    They're saying there is enough of a crisis, that it necessitates some kind of physical barrier to stop it in its tracks. And there's really two prongs. We have heard this already in the show, humanitarian crisis and a national security crisis.

    That terrorist threat you mentioned, the administration has been citing a few examples repeatedly, including one we heard from Vice President Pence just this morning in an interview. Here's what he had to say.

    "With regard to terrorists," he said, "we have seen more than 4,000 known or suspected terrorists attempt to come into our country through various means."

    Judy, that exact number is actually 3,755. It's a rounding up. That group that we know of, those are people with a direct link to terrorism. But to associate it with the southern border is very, very misleading.

    We know the vast majority of those people who've been apprehended come in through airports. And so that — it's a misleading claim we have heard the government say again and again. And, in fact, we have government's own numbers in this case that looked at the terrorist threat on the southern border. This is from a State Department report in 2017.

    They said: "There are no known international terrorist organizations operating in Mexico, no credible info that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the U.S."

    So that was 2017. But, Judy, even in this year, it's now been reported, in the first half of 2018, there are believed to be six known or suspected terrorists who entered the country, none of them from our southern…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Six?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number six?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — but, even apart from this, you hear the administration making the argument there are dangerous people coming across. Who are they, could they be referring to?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, there's two other numbers we have heard repeated again and again. And we dug into them to figure out, who are these groups they're talking about?

    In a briefing yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen cited these numbers. She cited a group of special interest aliens, 3,000 of them, she said, who were encountered on the southern border last year, in addition, 17,000 convicted criminals who were stopped at the southern border last year.

    Let's just take those piece by piece for a second. The special interest aliens, all those are, are a group of people who come from different countries that may require a second look, either because of the nature of terrorism or threats in their home country or because of their travel patterns. Those are not suspected terrorists.

    The libertarian Cato Institute actually looked at the group in-depth. They did a huge comprehensive study. And they found, from 1975 to 2017, that those groups from special interest aliens, there were seven of them in that — all of those years who entered illegally who were convicted of planning a terrorist attack, and none of them actually successfully carried out the attack.

    And none of them, Judy, actually entered on the southern border. And most of them actually came in from our northern border. The 17,000 criminal convictions, what we can say about that is, I went to a DHS source and said, what are those convictions? They don't have a breakdown.

    But they did say many of those convictions were for previous illegal entries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huh. But northern border, Canada?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Northern border on those seven ones over — from 1975 to 2017.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, setting that aside, setting aside the national security threat, the other argument the administration is making is, there's a humanitarian crisis at the border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do we know about that?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's absolutely a humanitarian crisis.

    OK, it starts all the way down in Central America, makes its way all the way up to our border. Here's what Secretary Nielsen had to say yesterday about that in the briefing. She cited 60,000 children sent here unaccompanied at the border, 30 percent of the women who are raped on the journey, seven out of 10 that are the victims of violence.

    We know these folks from these Central American countries who are fleeing violence and instability. They have a dangerous journey along the way. None of those are things that we have direct control over.

    The things that we have control over in our government, kind of creating a crisis of our own. We know that volume is not the problem. Historically, border crossings are at an all-time low. If you take a look at border apprehensions over the years, over the last 20 years, that's an 81 percent decline. Volume is not the issue.

    We have handled many, many more people, many hundreds of thousands more people a month. The difference is demographics. We now have more families, meaning parents and guardians, with children coming to our borders. Take a look at those numbers. Those have been going up over the last five years. It's a 400 percent increase.

    And that has taxed our system in ways it wasn't meant to handle. We were built as an immigration system to handle single men. We're not built to handle the families and children. It's creating a backlog through the whole system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's one thing the administration is acknowledging.

    One other thing, Amna. So, the president is going to speak to the nation tonight, short remarks, we're told seven or eight minutes. He is going to make again, we believe, a case for a wall along the border, saying, if we build a physical wall, we will be able to address these crises we have been discussing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, there's a few other threats the president has cited too, with validity, absolutely.

    He has said about the nature of drugs coming across the border — just on Friday, he said drugs are pouring into this country. They don't go through the ports of entry. When they do, they sometimes get caught. We know that there's elicit narcotics trafficking flowing back and forth. We know it's a problem, and the violence that comes with it too.

    Statistically, those illicit drugs come through legal ports of entry. A wall wouldn't really do much to stop it. And we have DEA data that actually debunks that too.

    But, more importantly, Judy, they say the wall could act as a deterrent, it'll send a message that people cannot illegally enter.

    The problem is, historically, that hasn't worked. In previous administrations and this one, anything we have done as a deterrent, whether it was pamphleting in Mexico, or putting families and children in mass detention — and these were in previous administrations, by the way — or family separation in this one, it hasn't worked, because the conditions on the ground these people are fleeing have not changed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz following it all very closely, and you will be joining us for our special coverage tonight.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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