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Trump says most asylum seekers don’t show up for their court hearings. A new study says 99% do.

This study contradicts Trump’s rationale for expanding immigration detention.

Central American immigrant families depart ICE custody, pending future immigration court hearings on June 11, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Donald Trump has often claimed that the only way to ensure that migrants show up for their court hearings rather than vanish into the US is to keep them in detention or else make sure that they never step foot on American soil in the first place.

But the president’s theory doesn’t hold up: About 99 percent of asylum seekers who were not detained or who were previously released from immigration custody showed up for their hearings over the last year, according to new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, a think tank that tracks data in the immigration courts.

Studies from previous years have also disproven the idea that most migrants will choose to live in the US without authorization rather than see their immigration cases through. But it’s nevertheless a central idea in Trump’s immigration policies, including those that aim to keep migrants in Mexico rather than letting them walk free in the US.

The latest data from TRAC shows that nearly every migrant who applied for asylum and whose case was completed in 2019 showed up for all of their court hearings. That’s even though the vast majority of asylum seekers — about four in five — were not detained at all or had been released from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody before their court date.

TRAC’s report doesn’t account for every migrant in immigration court: those who sought other kinds of relief from deportation or who didn’t apply for any relief at all aren’t included. The Department of Justice has also previously raised concerns about the accuracy of TRAC’s analysis, which relies on data obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, since the organization does not disclose its methodology.

A spokesperson for the DOJ declined to comment.

Data from the DOJ suggests that the rate at which migrants overall show up for their immigration court proceedings is lower than the rate TRAC cites. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, about 75 percent of migrants showed up for their court hearings in 2018 — similar to rates over the previous five years. The DOJ has also reported that the number of migrants and asylum seekers who fail to show up for their hearings is on the rise.

Migrants can end up in immigration court in one of two ways: turning themselves in to immigration agents or getting caught while trying to cross the border without authorization. In both cases, officials will initiate deportation proceedings against them and give them a date to appear in court, where they can ask a judge for asylum and other protections that would allow them to remain in the US with legal status, or else be ordered deported.

On average, immigrants with currently pending cases have been waiting almost two years for their court hearings, and cases take even longer to complete. Under previous administrations, a migrant who came into contact with immigration agents would have typically been released from custody into the US during that waiting period, unless they were found to be likely to flee or a risk to public safety.

But Trump has repeatedly maligned that practice, dubbing it “catch and release,” a concept that predates his presidency but that became a rallying cry during his 2016 campaign. He has falsely claimed that most asylum seekers who are allowed to walk free while their immigration cases are pending will not show up for their court hearings, instead absconding into the US to live as unauthorized immigrants.

In an address last January, Trump asserted that as few as 2 percent of asylum seekers who aren’t in detention show up for their court hearings:

Tell me, what percentage of people come back? Would you say 100 percent? No, you’re a little off. Like, how about 2 percent? And those people, you almost don’t want, because they cannot be very smart... Those two percent are not going to make America great again, that I can tell you.

But data from both TRAC and the Department of Justice clearly refutes Trump’s claim: The rate at which non-detained migrants showed up for their court hearings still far exceeded 2 percent even in the years prior to 2019.

Meanwhile, the rate at which migrantsasylum claims have been denied has steadily grown over the last seven years from just 42 percent in 2012 to 69 percent in 2019.

Trump has called for the end of “catch and release”

Trump has made efforts to end catch and release, instead keeping migrants in detention or else sending them back to Central America. To do so, he has increased funding for immigration detention, despite Congress’s attempts to rein him in.

Congress had sought to decrease the number of migrants in detention to just over 40,000 in its 2019 appropriations bill. But in August, Trump transferred $271 million in Department of Homeland Security disaster relief funds to ICE to pay for more detention capacity — about 50,000 migrants daily — and temporary immigration courts along the southern border.

Trump has also rolled out a series of policies that allow immigration agents to send migrants back to Mexico and Guatemala.

Under his “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, he has sent about 56,000 migrants back to Mexico to await decisions on their asylum cases in the US. The administration consequently announced that it had ended catch and release for families arriving at the southern border with some limited exceptions, instead sending them all back to Mexico under MPP.

And he’s brokered agreements with the countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — that would allow his administration to send migrants back to those countries to seek protection there rather than in the US. Only the agreement with Guatemala is in effect so far, but the agreement with Honduras is weeks away from implementation.

There are comparatively low-cost alternatives to keeping immigrants in detention or sending them abroad, including the now-defunct Obama-era Family Case Management Program. Under that program, which Trump ended in June 2017, families were released and assigned to social workers who aided them in finding attorneys and accommodation and ensured that they showed up for their court hearings.

The program was small in scale, with no more than 1,600 people enrolled at any one time, but appeared to be successful in ensuring that 99 percent of participants showed up for their court appearances and ICE check-ins.