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Trump’s claim that only immigrants with “the lowest IQ” follow the law was unconscionable

The mask slips.

President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the final presidential debate on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Though he lied a lot, President Donald Trump generally came across better during Thursday’s second and final presidential debate with Joe Biden than he did during the first, when his constant interruptions and unhinged behavior rendered it unwatchable (and ultimately hurt him in the polls). But one moment revealed the inhumanity at the core of his politics.

On the topic of immigration, Trump defended his administration’s strict immigrant detention policies by claiming that only people with “the lowest IQ” follow the law by showing up for court proceedings.

Perhaps sensing that he was about to say something unfortunate, Trump seemed to catch himself while the words were slipping out of his mouth — but it was too late. Here’s the clip:

Not only is the insinuation that only less intelligent people follow the law corrosive to the rule of law, but the specific claim Trump made is entirely false. As my colleague Nicole Narea detailed when Trump made similar claims in January, almost all immigrants show up for hearings, according to a recent study:

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. ...

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.

The immigration part of the debate in general didn’t go well for Trump. It began with him struggling to downplay new findings from lawyers appointed by a federal judge that the parents of 545 children — who were separated from their parents as a result of his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy — can’t be found.

“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 claimed, without evidence.

After Biden pointed out that “these 500-plus kids came with parents” and the child separation policy “makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” Trump replied by trying to pin blame for his administration’s policy on Obama and Biden. But as Dara Lind explained for Vox in 2018, there’s really no comparison.

It’s not that no family was ever separated at the border under the Obama administration. But former Obama administration officials specify that families were separated only in particular circumstances — for instance, if a father was carrying drugs — that went above and beyond a typical case of illegal entry.

To be clear, the Obama administration’s record on immigration isn’t necessarily great either — as of last year, Obama still held the record for most deportations. But the Obama/Biden policy was only to separate families when there was a reason to do so. Trump did it broadly and thought it was a deterrent. And as his comments during Thursday’s debate revealed, he’s never been particularly concerned about the human impact.

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