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Fact-Checking The Presidential Debate: Immigration

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

One of the biggest surprises of last night's presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden was just how much more substantial it was than the last one. One moment that actually stood out in particular was a sharp back-and-forth on immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: They got separated from their parents, and it makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.

KRISTEN WELKER: Let me ask you a follow-up question.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Kristen, they did it. We changed the policy.

WELKER: Your response to that?

TRUMP: They did it. We changed...

BIDEN: We did not separate...

TRUMP: They built the cages. Who built the cages, Joe?

BIDEN: Let's talk about what we're talking about.

TRUMP: Who built the cages, Joe?

BIDEN: Let's talk about what we're talking about. What happened? Parents were ripped - their kids were ripped from their arms and separated.

MOSLEY: Here to help with some fact-checking and tease out where each candidate stands on immigration is Jacob Soboroff. He reports on immigration for NBC News and joins us now by Skype.

Welcome, Jacob.

JACOB SOBOROFF: Hi, Tonya, great to be with you.

MOSLEY: Well, let's start with that exchange we just heard. They're talking about the Trump administration's so-called zero tolerance policy, which resulted in families being separated. And this week, we learned that the government still can't find parents of more than 500 children. The president says, quote, "they did it. We changed the policy, and they built the cages." Tell us about the difference between the Obama family detention policy and Trump's separation policy.

SOBOROFF: I think it's an incredibly important distinction. The Obama administration did indeed build the very facility that I saw children separated by their parents from the Trump administration caged in - held in cages, sleeping on mats on concrete floors, under Mylar blankets, supervised by security contractors in a watchtower. But we have to note that that facility was built in 2014 in response to a surge of unaccompanied migrant children, not separated children who arrived here by themselves. That doesn't mean that immigration activists didn't think that those conditions were inhumane to house the children in, but that was not a family separation policy. And the Trump administration systematically took 5,500 children away from their parents in what Physicians for Human Rights, which won a Nobel Peace Prize, calls torture and the American Academy of Pediatrics calls government-sanctioned child abuse.

MOSLEY: OK, so 500 children who still have not been reunited with their parents. Biden said, quote, "those kids are alone, nowhere to go." Trump says they are so well taken care of. They're in facilities that are so clean. What's the reality, Jacob?

SOBOROFF: No, they're not in facilities that are well taken care of and clean. The children are likely with relatives or sponsors in the interior of the United States. And the parents, quite literally, we don't know where they are, and that is because the Trump administration kept such poor records of the separations, where the parents were and where the children were ultimately once they separated them, that the non-governmental organizations that have been tasked with tracking down those parents now - for the most part in Central America - have to go door to door to literally find them. They simply don't know where they are.

MOSLEY: OK, I want to ask you about an Obama-era policy that Trump referred to derisively as catch and release, the practice of processing asylum-seekers when they come to the border, but then allowing them to the U.S. to await their asylum proceedings. Here's Trump and how he characterized that policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: When you say they come back, they don't come back, Joe. They never come back. Only the really - I hate to say this, but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.

WELKER: OK, President Trump, let's give Vice President...

MOSLEY: How did this policy actually work? How often did hopeful immigrants return to their hearings?

SOBOROFF: Well, first thing I want to say is, you know, catch and release was never a specific policy. It is a dehumanizing euphemism used, as you said, Tonya, where immigrants go into the interior of the country and they're allowed to basically be paroled while they wait for the adjudication of their asylum claims. Eighty-three percent of those migrants show up for each and every one of their hearings, according to the American Immigration Council, not 1% or a tiny percent, as the president said.

MOSLEY: That's Jacob Soboroff. He reports on immigration for NBC News and MSNBC, and his book is called "Separated: Inside An American Tragedy."

Jacob, thanks so much.

SOBOROFF: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.