Capitol Alert

Fact Check: Tom McClintock suggests DACA is to blame for border-crossing surge. Is it?

California Rep. Tom McClintock suggested Wednesday that the spike in migrant families apprehended at the southern border this winter is due to government policies that “reward” their behavior, particularly an Obama-era program granting legal status to young undocumented immigrants, known as DREAMers.

There is not research to support that theory, however. Experts McClatchy spoke with doubted that the program is a primary driver of the current surge in family migration, mainly from the violence-plagued Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

McClintock made the remarks at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Donald Trump has tried to end.

“The newspapers are reporting across the country that we’re now facing the largest surge of illegal immigration crossing the southern border in the last ten years, the majority of them with children,” the Elk Grove Republican noted. “And we have to ask ourselves why, why is that?”

“I’m afraid that one of the principal reasons they think they can (do it) are hearings like this,” McClintock continued, which “threaten to institutionalize this lawlessness by rewarding those who break the laws without securing our borders.”

McClintock’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Cressy, said that his assertion was “speculation based on the coincidence of the developments.”

It’s true, as the New York Times reported Tuesday, Customs and Border Patrol counted more than 76,000 migrants attempting to cross the border without authorization in February, the highest rate in eleven years.

It takes more than coincidence to demonstrate that programs like DACA are the reason, however.

The cause of migration flows is difficult to prove in this situation, said Duke University Political Economist Sarah Bermeo, because “we can never empirically document people’s intentions, really.”

That’s fueled an ongoing political debate on immigration trends, with experts from across the ideological spectrum pointing to various “push” factors — the dynamics driving people to leave their home countries — and “pull” factors — conditions in the United States that attract those people to our borders.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday that “The belief that our system will allow migrants to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, even if they enter illegally and whether or not they have a valid asylum claim is clearly the driving pull factor for those making the decision to journey to our border.”

McAleenan also recognized “important push factors, which include challenging conditions in many parts of Central America.” He did not mention DACA.

David Inserra, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed, pointing in particular to a 2015 legal ruling by a California court that prevents the government from detaining children or separating them from their parents. President Trump has dubbed that rule “catch and release” and tried to challenge it last year by separating migrant children and detaining their parents. The family separation policy was halted amidst public outrage and legal challenges.

“Word gets out that, ‘look, look, even though Trump has talked about doing these things … there are still these legal loopholes,’” if you migrate with children and claim asylum, Inserra told McClatchy.

There were spikes in family migration before that 2015 ruling, however, Bermeo noted, as well as before Obama even instituted the DACA program in 2012, which makes it more difficult to argue those U.S. policies are responsible for the broader trend.

Bermeo pointed to data that suggests that violence, more than anything else, is the factor pushing families north.

“If this is really based on economic opportunity and the ability of people’s children to stay in the country,” then one would expect to see similar levels of migration from Honduras’ southern neighbor, Nicaragua, which actually has a higher poverty rate, she said. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 47,900 migrants from Honduras and only 1,098 from Nicaragua in 2017, which Bermeo highlighted in a 2018 op-ed.

Nicaragua does have a far lower murder rate than Honduras, which ranks second in the world only to El Salvador.

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.