AILSA CHANG, HOST:
With days to go before the midterm elections, President Trump is ratcheting up his rhetoric on immigration. He continues to focus on the caravan of Central American migrants heading north through Mexico. Here's what he said at the White House yesterday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The current influx, if not halted, threatens to overwhelm our immigration system and our communities and poses unacceptable dangers to the entire nation.
CHANG: But immigration experts say the president's remarks about migrants and asylum-seekers were riddled with false and misleading statements, statements meant to stoke fear of immigrants and drive the president's supporters to the polls. Joining me now to fact-check some of Trump's claims is NPR's Joel Rose. Hey, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So first, the president says there's a crisis at the border. That's his word. Is crisis a word you would use to describe what's going on?
ROSE: Well, I guess crisis is in the eye of the beholder. The number of people apprehended at the border is down from the Obama years, and it is way down from the record highs of the 1990s and the 2000s. But the administration would argue that it is a crisis today because it's a different mix of people who are showing up at the border. A generation ago, it was mostly migrant laborers coming across, mostly alone. Now you see many more families, many more children. And those groups have many more protections under the law and get to stay in the U.S. while they fight in immigration court to win their asylum cases.
CHANG: Well, the president says he wants to deny asylum to migrants who don't present themselves at official ports of entry. Can he actually do that?
ROSE: Well, if he does try to issue an executive order like that, it will certainly be challenged in court. The law of the land, the Immigration and Nationality Act, says that any migrant who is physically present in the U.S. can claim asylum, quote, "whether or not at a designated port of arrival," unquote. But the president could argue that he has a right to shut the border for national security. He made a similar argument in support of his travel ban executive order. You probably remember. And he did eventually win before the Supreme Court.
CHANG: Trump also says he wants to hold asylum-seekers indefinitely in tent cities. Can his administration do that?
ROSE: There are strict rules about the treatment of migrants in detention, especially children. And immigrant rights activists say that massive tent cities would certainly violate those rules. But the Trump administration seems undeterred. In fact, it is already fighting in court to roll back those protections. So it does not seem to be backing down from a fight on that.
CHANG: Listening to his recent remarks - I mean, the president has always taken a tough stance on immigration. That's nothing new. He's used harsh rhetoric before. So do you see this as more of the same, or do you sense actually a shift in tone?
ROSE: I do feel like there is a new level of intensity that we're seeing this week. I mean, just look back at the week. On Monday, he sent thousands of troops to the southwest border. On Tuesday, we got a report that the White House wants to do away with birthright citizenship. On Wednesday, the president tweeted an inflammatory ad that compares migrants in the caravan to a convicted cop killer who entered the U.S. illegally years ago. And yesterday in his speech, he said repeatedly that these are, quote, "tough people," unquote, and really that we should be afraid of them.
CHANG: I mean, obviously the president is ramping up this intensity to try to rally his base. But do you think that these tactics could backfire with some voters?
ROSE: Well, certainly critics say that this is all just fearmongering and political theater, you know, days before an election. I talked with Karen Musalo at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in San Francisco. She says this migrant caravan is largely composed of women and children who are making a dangerous journey together just for self-protection.
KAREN MUSALO: There's a deep irony, a sort of tragic irony to characterizing the fact that they're coming together, that they're this marauding army rather than these are very vulnerable individuals desperately fleeing violence who have come together as a group to really have the protection and the solidarity of each other.
ROSE: And who really, it should be pointed out, are still, you know, hundreds of miles away from the southwest border and won't even get there for weeks.
CHANG: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks, Joel.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.