AP FACT CHECK: Trump misplaces blame for family splits

President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable on immigration policy in California in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

SAN DIEGO — President Donald Trump is wrongly blaming Democrats for a law that he says is forcing migrant children to be taken from their parents at the border. The decision to separate families was made by the Trump administration.

A look at his comment Wednesday during his meeting with local California officials who support the president's moves on immigration policy:

TRUMP to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: "I know what you're going through right now with families is very tough but those are the bad laws that the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law. It's a horrible thing where you have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law and they don't want to do anything about it. They'll leave it like that 'cause they don't want to make any changes. And now you're breaking up families because of the Democrats. It's terrible."

THE FACTS: Not so. No law that "the Democrats gave us" mandates the separation of children from their parents at the border.

A 2008 law designed to combat child trafficking has been described by Trump and his administration as a principal reason for "catch-and-release" policies that he's trying to end at the border.

The law says children traveling alone from countries other than Mexico or Canada must be released in the "least restrictive setting" — often to family or a government-run shelter — while their cases slowly wind through immigration court. It was designed to accommodate an influx of children fleeing to the U.S. from Central America.

And it had full-throated support from Republicans and Democrats alike, passing both houses of Congress unanimously. Republican George W. Bush signed it into law as one of his last acts as president.

The law says nothing about breaking up families. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal entries, pledging to criminally prosecute people with few or no previous offenses. If parents are jailed, they are separated from children who joined them under protocols described in the 2008 law.

Administration officials have acknowledged that about 700 children have been separated from their parents since October. That figure is certain to increase once the zero-tolerance policy takes hold; nearly 50,000 Border Patrol arrests since October were of people who came as families. That's about 1 in 4 arrests by the agents.

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TRUMP: "Our numbers are much better than in the past, but they're not nearly acceptable and not nearly as good as what we could have. We're down 40 percent from those other standards, so that's really good — meaning 40 percent crossings."

THE FACTS: That claim of a 40 percent drop in illegal crossings in a year is based on outdated numbers. Yes, Border Patrol arrests plummeted to the lowest level since 1971 during the last budget year. But they began a sharp and steady climb after Trump's first few months in office. One likely explanation is that people who initially took a wait-and-see attitude toward Trump are now taking their chances.

Overall border arrests in April — which add people who are stopped at land crossings and other official points of entry — topped 50,000 for a second straight month. That was more than triple the number from a year earlier, which was the lowest tally on record since the Homeland Security Department was created in 2003.

Border arrests are an imprecise measure of how many people are attempting to enter the country illegally, because the numbers who make it into the U.S. are not known. But when arrests are up, that's taken by the government to mean that more people are trying.

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed from Washington.

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