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Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children July 15, 2019 in Homestead, Fla. (Getty Images) Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children July 15, 2019 in Homestead, Fla. (Getty Images)

Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children July 15, 2019 in Homestead, Fla. (Getty Images)

Mica Soellner
By Mica Soellner July 26, 2019

O’Rourke on point with claim on U.S. incarcerating migrant children

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has been vocal about his opposition to detaining unaccompanied migrant children crossing the nation’s southern border. 

The El Paso native and former congressman has frequently made visits to migrant detention camps and held rallies calling for them to be shut down.

"We are incarcerating more children than any time in America’s history since we interned Japanese-Americans during World War II," O’Rourke said at a Houston rally on June 29, 2019. 

He repeated the claim July 11, 2019 at the League of United Latin American Citizens convention in Milwaukee. O’Rourke was among eight Democratic presidential contenders, plus Jill Biden, who attended the convention. LULAC is the largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country. 

It was a stark claim.

Is O’Rourke right?

Digging in 

We reached out to O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans, who said the statement has been a talking point the candidate has made on the campaign trail since his June 27, 2019 visit to a detention center in Homestead, Fla.

In an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin, Evans also shared the math behind O’Rourke’s claim:

"When you add up all of those children at all of those border patrol stations, detention centers, and (Health and Human Services) shelters across the country, we are detaining more children than anytime in American history since we interned Japanese-Americans during World War II." 

Japanese internment camps

In a response to the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to relocate all persons of Japanese ancestry -- both citizens and noncitizens -- inland, so they were outside of the Pacific military zone. 

This was due in part to a wave of national security concerns that followed the attack. Roosevelt’s order was described as necessary to prevent potential espionage efforts and protect those with Japanese ancestry from harm amidst a growing anti-Japanese sentiment among the public.

Data from the National Archives and other reported sources such as the Public Broadcasting Service, show a range of 110,000 to more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent were moved to internment camps. Most were native-born U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

Evans cited the PBS documentary Children of the Camps for the number of children who were relocated to internment camps. PBS reported 120,000 Japanese people were moved and over half that figure were children, which would be a total of at least 60,000 kids.

Those impacted were forced to report to civilian assembly centers outside a massive exclusion zone designated along the west coast. Thousands were forced to close down their businesses, abandon their farms and homes and move to the internment camps, dubbed relocation centers.

In January 1944, a Supreme Court ruling halted the detention of U.S. citizens without cause and the order was rescinded. The last internment camp closed in 1946.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate those who were incarcerated in camps. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in reparations to each surviving victim. Overall, the U.S. government paid $1.6 billion in reparations to detainees and their descendants.

That’s the historic perspective.

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How do the numbers compare to the situation along the border today?

Detention of migrant children hit a high

In an email, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted the crisis on the southern border has meant a dramatic increase in referrals of migrant children from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

As of June 2019, DHS had referred more than 58,500 children to the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The number was a 57% increase from the same time period in 2018. As of July 15, 2019, there are about 11,200 children actually in the office’s care, but the number changes daily.

"The number of referrals is unpredictable," the e-mail read. "It is likely this fiscal year that ORR will care for the largest number of (unaccompanied alien children) in the program’s history."

Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 63,624 children were apprehended at the border from January to June 2019. The last update was made July 10, 2019. The agency defines apprehensions as physical control or temporary detainment of a person who is not lawfully in the U.S., which may or may not result in an arrest. 

So, of the nearly 64,000 apprehended at the border, not all of them were brought into camps.

Numerous media reports say the number of migrants crossing the border as well as arrests made at the border have reached record levels.

According to USA TODAY, DHS reported 40,891 unaccompanied migrant children were referred to the division for housing in 2019, a 57% increase from last year.

Evans referred to two New York Times articles, and one from the Washington Post that report the number of migrant children in shelters have reached historic highs. 

The New York Times reports children in shelters reached a total of 12,800 in September 2018 when the article was published, a huge increase from the 2,400 who were in custody in May 2017.

Complicated comparisons

Renee Romano, a history professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, said there are parallels between the situation with migrant children today and children who were interned in camps during World War II, but the comparison isn’t exactly equal in weight.

Romano noted migrant children are arriving on a regular basis and may be detained for different periods of time while most of the Japanese American children were already living in the country and remained interned for most of the duration of the war. 

"The number of kids being detained at any given time quite fluctuates," Romano said of the migrant children detained today. " The Japanese American experience was the country rounding up an entire settled population."

So, O’Rourke reaches a bit too far in making the comparison and uses the politically loaded "incarcerated" to drive home his point. The thrust of the claim, though, is a numeric one: 

Not whether current detentions are higher than World War II ones, but whether there has been any other period with a higher number of detentions since then.

We could not identify any period in which the actual detention of children has been higher. Nor could the experts we talked with, even if the two have major differences in their situation.

Our ruling

O’Rourke claimed the U.S. is incarcerating more children than any time since we had Japanese internment camps during World War II.

According to reports, roughly 60,000 Japanese children were interned during the World War II era. News reports and government agencies site that migrant activity in the country have hit a high, including the number of children detained. 

That said, the situation with migrant children today is quite different, so O’Rourke reaches a bit too far in making his claim.

Our definition for Mostly True is "the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information." That fits here.

Our Sources

Email exchange with Chris Evans, spokesman for Beto O’Rourke, July 17, 2019

Email exchange with HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, Office of Communications,  July 17, 2019

USA TODAY, Trump administration to house migrant children at Fort Sill, which once served as a Japanese internment camp, June 12, 2019

Public Broadcasting Service, Children of the Camps documentary 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Border Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2019 statistics

The New York Times, Detention of migrant children has skyrocketed to highest levels ever, Sept. 12, 2018

The New York Times, Thousands of migrant children could be released after sponsor policy change, Dec. 18, 2018

The Washington Post, Trump’s "zero-tolerance" at the border is causing child shelters to fill up fast, May 29, 2018

The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Arrests Record Number of Families at Southern Border, March 5, 2019

National Public Radio, From wrong to right: A U.S. apology for Japanese internment, Aug. 9, 2013

Phone interview with Renee Romano, history professor at Oberlin College on July 24, 2019

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O’Rourke on point with claim on U.S. incarcerating migrant children

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