Rep. Mark Walker
US Rep. Mark Walker, R-NC, on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Courtesy of Rep. Walker.

by Bill McCarthy, Politifact North Carolina

In the face of the longest government shutdown in American history, President Donald Trump has repeatedly maintained that the border situation is a crisis only a wall can solve.

Shortly after Trump used a prime-time television slot to plead for public support of his signature campaign promise, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., jumped into the mix with a tweet backing the president.

“The debate on securing our border can’t be measured in partisan jabs,” said Walker, who represents North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District. “It has to be measured in the human toll caused by porous borders:

  • 1/3 migrant women are sexually assaulted
  • 7/10 migrants are victims of violence
  • 20k migrant children were illegally smuggled last month.”

Walker spokesman Jack Minor said the first two statistics came from Doctors Without Borders, an international nonprofit providing medical care in places marked by conflict and poverty. He said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen presented the third figure to House members during a briefing Jan. 8.

Similar numbers have been raising eyebrows across the country for weeks, so we decided to put Walker’s statement to the Truth-O-Meter.

“1/3 migrant women are sexually assaulted” and “7/10 migrants are victims of violence”

Walker pulled these numbers from a 2017 Doctors Without Borders report detailing the conditions faced by migrants fleeing violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle, which includes El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, for the United States. But that report focused on a very different situation than what Walker’s tweet described.

Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, said the report was meant to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Central America and the resulting forced displacement — not the situation inside the United States or at the U.S. border with Mexico.

The report was based on medical data and a 2015 survey of 467 randomly sampled migrants who were receiving treatment at clinics in Mexico supported by Doctors Without Borders.

According to the survey’s findings, 68.3 percent of the migrants and refugees entering Mexico from the Northern Triangle said they had experienced violence during their transit through Mexico to the United States, and 31.4 percent of women said they had been sexually abused.

Walker implied these numbers were “the human toll caused by porous borders” – that they were somehow the result of current immigration policies and could be fixed by a border wall. But they don’t actually refer to the situation at the U.S. border at all.

In reality, the numbers chart the harms suffered by migrants on the journey through Mexico.

“Central American migrants are extremely vulnerable to violence, both in their home countries and along the route to the United States,” Delaunay said. “It is unfortunate that our data — that illustrated the dangers migrants face as they journey to the U.S. — are being used by the U.S. government to try to justify immigration policies that put the lives of these very same people at risk.”

It’s clear that Walker didn’t pull the numbers out of thin air, but his claim is misleading.

“20k children were illegally smuggled last month”

Minor said this figure came from DHS Secretary Nielsen, who presented it to House members during a briefing in January, referring to December data.

Fact-checkers at The Washington Post and looked into the same claim after Trump made it a focal point of his prime-time Oval Office address on Jan. 8.

DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman told PolitiFact 19,313 minors tried to cross the border illegally in December, either with a parent or alone. Including others who arrived at legal ports of entry, a total of 22,110 minors showed up at the border without documents that month, she said.

But it’s not accurate to describe either figure as the number of children being “smuggled” into the country, which Trump’s supporters often link to drug cartels, “coyotes” or other bad actors.

While there were about 20,000 minors stopped while t

rying to enter the United States illegally, the number of children smuggled to the border probably was much smaller. That’s because border officials screen for false claims of parentage or guardianship.

Between April and September 2018, Customs and Border Patrol separated 170 family units on suspicion of smuggling after determining that the child was not related to the parent or guardian, according to The Washington Post.

But as noted, 170 is a tiny percent of the more than 60,000 family units that were apprehended during that time frame. So it’s far-fetched to suggest, as Walker did, that just about every minor caught at the border was brought there by a smuggler.

Our ruling

In a Jan. 9 tweet, Walker said “porous borders” had resulted in one-third of migrant women experiencing sexual assault, 70 percent of migrants experiencing violence, and the illegal smuggling of 20,000 migrant children across the border in December.

Although Walker got the first two numbers straight from a Doctors Without Borders report, his suggestion that the violence occurred because of existing border conditions was highly misleading. The statistics came from a survey that asked Central American migrants receiving medical treatment in Mexico about their experience traveling through Mexico. Also, the head of the group behind the report said violence in their home countries was a factor in why they left.

The third statistic Walker cited was also misleading, since he conflated the 19,313 minors apprehended at the border last month with the much smaller number of minors who would have been caught traveling with smugglers.

Overall, Walker’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate this statement Mostly False.

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Politifact is a national nonprofit news media organization based in Florida. The North Carolina branch works in conjunction with the Duke University Reporters' Lab and the News & Observer of Raleigh. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists also provide support for the project.

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