Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Does the Data President Trump Cited at His Emergency Announcement Even Exist?

Scott R. Anderson, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, February 15, 2019, 3:47 PM

Inquiring minds want to know.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Earlier this morning, President Trump delivered a truly extraordinary set of remarks from the Rose Garden as part of the rollout of his administration’s new plan for constructing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Featured prominently in those remarks—as they have been in Trump’s other speeches on the border—were gruesome descriptions of crimes that certain undocumented immigrants have committed in the United States, some of the victims of which were seated in the audience at Trump’s invitation.

Two reporters, Jim Acosta of CNN and Brian Karem of Playboy, pushed back on this narrative, noting a disconnect between the dire description that the president has put forward of what is happening along the border and statistics on border crossing and levels of criminal activity among immigrants versus native-born Americans. Here’s a transcript of the exchange between Trump, Acosta and Karem:


Acosta: Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if you could comment on this disconnect that we seem to have in this country where you are presenting information about what's happening at the border, calling it an invasion, talking about women with duct tape over their mouths and so on, and yet there is a lot of reporting out there, there’s a lot of crime data out there, there is a lot of Department of Homeland Security data out there that shows border crossings at a near record low—

Trump: That’s because of us. Excuse me—

Acosta: That shows undocumented immigrants committing crime at lower levels—shows undocumented criminals—undocumented immigrants committing crime at lower levels than native born Americans. What do you say to—

Trump: You don't really believe that stat, do you? Do you really believe that? Take a look at our federal prisons.

Acosta: I believe in facts and statistics.

Trump: Ok any more? Quick, let’s go.

Acosta: Let me just ask you this. What do you say to your critics who say that you are creating a national emergency? That you are concocting a national emergency here in order to get your wall because you couldn’t get it through other ways—

Trump: Ask the Angel Moms. What do you think? Do you think I am creating something? Ask these incredible women who lost their daughters and their sons. Ok? Because your question is a very political question. Cause you have an agenda. You are CNN, fake news. You have an agenda. The numbers that you gave are wrong. Take a look at our federal prison population. See how many of them, percentage wise, are illegal aliens. Just see. Go ahead and see. Its a fake question. Yes, go ahead.

Karem: Thank you, Mr. President. Just to follow-up on that, unifying crime reporting statistics, numbers from your own border patrol, numbers from this government, show that the amount of illegal immigrants are down. There is not violence on the border. And that most—

Trump: There’s not violence on the border?

Karem: Not as much violence. [Talking over each other.] Let me finish the question, please.

Trump: Two weeks ago, 26 people were killed in a gunfight on the border a mile away from where I went.

Karem: I understand what youre saying. I was there. I understand. That’s not the question. The question is

Trump: Did we forget about that?

Karem: No. I’m not forgetting about it, I’m asking you to clarify where you get your numbers. Because most of the DEA crime reporting statistics that we see show that drugs are coming across at the ports of entry, that illegal immigration is down, and the violence is down. So what do you base your facts on?

Trump: Ok come on, let’s go.

Karem: Secondly—

Trump: No. No. You get one. [Talking over each other.] Sit down. Sit down! Sit down! You get one question. I get my numbers from a lot of sources. Like Homeland Security, primarily. And the numbers that I have from Homeland Security are a disaster. And you know what else is a disaster? The numbers that come out of Homeland Security, Kirstjen, for the cost that we spend and the money that we lose because of illegal immigration. Billions and billions of dollars a month. Billions and billions of dollars and its unnecessary.

Karem: So your own government stats are wrong are you saying?

Trump: No, no, I use many stats. I use many stats.

Karem: Could you share those stats with us?

Trump: Let me tell you, you have stats that are far worse than the ones I use, but I have many stats. But I also use Homeland Security. Alright, next question.

Count us skeptical that the Department of Homeland Security has sent the White House dramatic data that supports the president’s claims. We suspect that once again, the president of the United States is telling a kind of compound lie—a lie not just about immigrants but about the official data generated by his own government on the subject.

But we thought we would check. So we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the Department of Homeland Security and the White House on the following matters:

  • The level of unauthorized border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border;
  • Crime rates among undocumented immigrants in the United States compared to native-born Americans;
  • The proportion of the U.S. federal prison population that are undocumented immigrants;
  • Rates of violent crimes and other violent activity at the U.S.-Mexico border;
  • The proportion of illegal drugs that enter the United States at ports of entry versus not at ports of entry;
  • The amount of money the United States spends to address illegal immigration; and
  • The economic cost to the United States of illegal immigration.

Here’s a copy of the request itself:


As always, we will share any material we receive in response.

Scott R. Anderson is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow in the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School. He previously served as an Attorney-Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State and as the legal advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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