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Trump defends conditions for detained migrant kids, blames Obama for family separations; fact checkers call foul

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Edmilson Aguilar Punay, a 15-year-old from Guatemala, says the detention center where he was held was so crowded, some people had to sleep standing.
USA TODAY

When questioned by interviewers about migrant children detained at the southern border, President Donald Trump has tried to steer the blame toward the previous administration, saying former President Barack Obama initiated the policy of separating those children from their caregivers, even though fact checkers have consistently found that claim to be false. 

During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which aired Sunday, Trump told host Chuck Todd that he “inherited separation from President Obama” and that “I was the one that ended it.” 

“When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy. I didn’t have it. He had it. I brought the families together. I’m the one that put them together,” he told Telemundo’s José Díaz Balart in an interview that aired Thursday. 

And on Thursday he told Time magazine that “I inherited separation” and “I’m the one that put the families back together.” 

But, according to FactCheck.org, “previous administrations did not have a blanket policy to prosecute parents and separate them from their children.” It was after the Trump administration announced its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in April 2018, in which everyone who illegally entered the U.S. was referred for criminal prosecution, that thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents. 

“We don’t want to separate families, but we don’t want families to come to the border illegally and attempt to enter into this country improperly,” said then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions when the policy was announced. “The parents are subject to prosecution while children may not be. So, if we do our duty and prosecute those cases, then children inevitably for a period of time might be in different conditions.”

In a May 2018 interview, then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told NPR a “big name of the game is deterrence” in stopping illegal immigration, and that family separations “would be a tough deterrent.” 

Fact check: Did the Obama administration separate families?

Migrant apprehensions and deportations during Obama’s presidency outpaced those of Trump’s first years according to Department of Homeland Security data and a report published Friday by Axios. But PolitiFact found that family separations were rare during the Obama and Bush administrations and became “systematic” under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. 

In 2014, there was a surge in the number of migrant children arriving at the border. The vast majority were unaccompanied, and thousands were detained in makeshift detention centers that included overcrowded chain-link fence cages where they were forced to sleep on the floor with space blankets. 

More: Conditions in 2014: A look at detention center flooded immigrant children

The Obama administration sought to keep families together in detention, but a court ruling held that those children could not be held more than 20 days. So, officials began to release entire families, except in cases where custody could not be established or the parent was being prosecuted for another crime, such as drug smuggling, according to PolitiFact. 

Reuniting families: It may take 2 years to identify thousands of migrant children

The Trump administration has stressed that family separations also occurred under other presidents since the first wave of backlash to the zero-tolerance policy. 

Then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to justify the effects of the “zero-tolerance” policy during a June 2018 news conference by saying  “the Obama administration, the Bush administration all separated families.” But she conceded that “their rate was less than ours.” 

Two days later, Trump signed an executive order ending the family separations amid an international outcry. Six days after that, a federal judge ordered that the children must be reunited with their families. A February 2019 court filing found that more than 2,700 of 2,816 separated children had been released. But a January 2019 report from the Department Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that thousands more may have been separated than the 2,800 who have been identified. 

Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated at border than previously reported

More: Trump administration has separated hundreds of children from their migrant families since 2018

After Nielsen resigned in April 2019, Trump was asked during a news conference in the Oval Office about reports that he wished to reinstitute the zero-tolerance policy that had led to the high number of family separations.

“Just so you understand, President Obama separated the children,” Trump said. “I’m the one that stopped it.” But during the same news conference, Trump defended the policy, arguing that without it, “you see many more people coming.”

“They’re coming like it’s a picnic” and telling themselves, “‘Let’s go to Disneyland,'” the president said. 

More: Trump calls for changes to immigration laws, says the border is ‘like Disneyland’

Similarly, in his interviews with NBC, Time and Telemundo. even as Trump decried family separations, he lamented that without them “more people would come up.”

In all three interviews, Trump was not directly challenged on his claim that family separation were an Obama-era policy. On Sunday, NBC’s Todd was widely criticized on social media for letting Trump’s assertion stand. 

In promoting the interview, NBC tweeted about Trump saying he “inherited” child separation from Obama. The network followed up an hour and a half later with a tweet clarifying, “As NBC News previously reported, this claim is false.” 

Although his administration says there is a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump told Todd that “the border’s doing great” when asked about the high number of migrants arriving there in recent months.  

“But does it frustrate you that your border numbers are worse than Obama’s?” Todd asked Trump.

“They’re pouring up because the economy is so good. Obama had a lousy economy,” Trump said. 

When asked about the conditions in which separated migrant children are being kept, Trump said, “We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.” And he blamed congressional Democrats for “holding up the humanitarian aid.”

More: Trump administration cuts English classes, soccer and legal aid for migrant children at shelters

More: Thousands of migrant children report they were sexually assaulted in U.S. custody

During an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence was asked about a Department of Justice lawyer’s argument before a three-judge panel at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the government is not required to provide migrant children with toothbrushes or soap. 

“I can’t speak to what that lawyer was saying,” Pence said before blaming Democrats for failing to appropriate for funds. 

“This is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have money to give toothpaste and soap and blankets to these kids in this facility in El Paso County.  Right now, we do,” CNN host Jake Tapper told Pence. 

“Of course we do,” Pence replied. 

Detention: Trump administration to hold migrant children in former Japanese internment camp

Deaths: A 10-year-old from El Salvador is the 6th migrant child to die in US custody in 8 months

More: Migrant children describe neglect and mistreatment at a Texas border facility

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  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Trump administration faces a court-imposed deadline Thursday to reunite thousands of children and parents who were forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. 1 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.2 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.3 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.4 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.5 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.6 of 7
  • Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.7 of 7

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