Just 0.02% of unaccompanied kids at the US-Mexico border had suspected ties to MS-13

Children, not criminals.
Children, not criminals.
Image: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Back on a campaign leitmotiv, Donald Trump is once again pushing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, justifying it as an antidote to a supposed influx of criminals, and particularly members of the MS-13 gang. As with the other immigration facts shared by the administration, the claim is exaggerated, and finds little support in the actual data.

In a tweet from last week, the US president claimed undocumented immigrants “pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”

His secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, is promoting the same narrative, specifically saying that unaccompanied children crossing the border present a threat: “The kids are being used by pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers,” she said on June 18. “Again, let’s just pause to think about this statistic: 314 percent increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit. Those are traffickers, those are smugglers and that is MS-13, those are criminals, those are abusers.”

This is a mischaracterization, on two counts.

First, quoting a percentage increase is a good way to obscure the fact that the overall instances of these events are incredibly rare. As Quartz has noted before, last year there were only 46 cases of immigrants apprehended at the US southern border fraudulently claiming a child was theirs, DHS statistics show, amounting to 0.015% of all cases. The number of fraudulent family claims did increase three-fold in the first six months of 2018, statistics from the Department of Homeland Security show, but they still represent just 0.09% of all cases.

The percentage of kids tied to MS-13 is even lower. As Hannah Dreier, who has been reporting on MS-13 for ProPublica, notes, the number of unaccompanied children with suspected ties to the gang is negligible: Between 2012 and 2017, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection, 272,538 unaccompanied minors arrived in the US. Of them, only 56 have been suspected of having ties with MS-13—that is, about 0.02% of them.