The plight of more than 500 migrant children held at the border whose parents cannot now be located took center stage in Thursday’s final presidential debate.
“We are trying very hard,” President Donald Trump said when first accused by Vice-President Joe Biden of failing to locate the parents and reunite these families.
The president insisted the children at the southern border were “very well taken care of.”
But that was followed by Trump’s claim that many of the children were not brought to the border between the U.S. and Mexico by their parents but by criminal or human trafficking groups, which he says makes it difficult to locate their families.
“These children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they used to use them to get into our country,” Trump said.
“Coyote” is a term used for someone who traffics others across the border, often for pay.
Immigration activists are disputing Trump’s claim.
Raices, the largest immigration legal services non-profit in Texas, tweeted: “Fact check: Migrant children separated by the Trump administration during Zero Tolerance came with their families, not coyotes. We know. We worked with the children who were sent to shelters after being separated. Facts matter.”
NBC News said that about 2,800 families were separated by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a court filing submitted on Tuesday that lawyers appointed to represent the minors have been unable to contact parents of 545 children who were separated at the border by the government, leaving the children living with sponsors throughout the United States.
According to ABC News, a federal judge ordered the government to track the whereabouts of the parents — a difficult task because the government failed to adequately track the families in the first place, according to a government watchdog office.
Some of the parents may have been deported to Central America, news organizations say.
In the debate, Trump pivoted to the question of the detention “cages” built at the border for family members. While Trump has been excoriated for the existence of the cages, they were first used during the Obama administration, which has been confirmed by the New York Times and other debate fact checkers.
NBC Universal debate fact checkers said, “The Obama administration separated migrant children in limited cases, primarily around questions of safety or potential child trafficking, but ‘not as a matter of policy or practice,’ former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.”
After a surge in unaccompanied children and women at the border in 2014, the Obama administration did detain families in “cages,” or chain link structures, where children were generally kept for the mandated guideline of several days, said NBC Universal.
Trump said repeatedly during the debate, “Who built the cages, Joe?”
In another criminal justice hot button issue raised during the debate, Trump said Biden deserved little support from the Black community because of his role in passing the 1994 crime bill—which some researchers claim helped to create America’s mass incarceration problem.
“He did such harm to the Black community, ” said Trump. “He called them super predators. ”
In fact, the term first surfaced in the 1990s to describe violent young people whom some criminologists claimed represented a major threat to public safety.
According to the New York Times fact check, “Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that Mr. Biden used the term ‘super predators’ in reference to criminals during debate over the 1994 crime bill. Mr. Biden never used the term; however. It was used by Hillary Clinton, then first lady.”
Biden did say in 1993 during a speech on the Senator floor there were “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale,” reported CNN.
His record regarding the bill does raise significant issues, news organizations say.
“Criminal justice experts and critics say Mr. Biden’s work on crime legislation helped lay the groundwork for mass incarceration that has devastated America’s Black communities,” said the New York Times.
In 1993, Biden boasted on the Senate floor, “The truth is every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic Senator from the state of Delaware, Joe Biden.”
The two sparred repeatedly over justice reforms.
Trump, who pointed to his sponsorship of the First Step Act and his pardons of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses, said Biden had nothing similar to show after his decades serving at the highest levels of government and Congress.
Biden countered that the Obama administration had already begun reducing prison populations, and had commuted the sentences of over 1,000 individuals.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.