Last week, the nativist group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) did it again. This time, CIS misrepresented data on children and families appearing in immigration court, echoing what Fox News reported earlier in the week—both outlets implying that detention is necessary to ensure appearance in court. Yet data from the immigration courts—the same data CIS and Fox News used—show that a majority of children and families do appear in court. Detaining children and families is not only inhumane and expensive, it’s unnecessary.

The key problem with CIS’ assertion that 84 percent of families are not showing up for their hearings is that CIS measured the wrong data. CIS measured only removal orders issued since last summer, of which 84 percent have been in absentia (i.e., issued because the person did not appear for the hearing). But CIS ignored the fact that most cases begun last summer are still pending. By only including in its calculations the cases in which final decisions have been made (i.e., completed cases)—and not including the thousands of still pending cases—CIS manipulated the data to tell the story it wanted to tell.

The real story is this: government data show that 78.8 percent of unaccompanied children (20,324 children out of 25,777) have likely appeared for their first hearing in immigration court and 59.4 percent of persons in families (15,296 persons out of 25,732) have likely appeared for their first hearing. The majority of these cases are ongoing.

And majorities of both children and families showed up to their hearings despite government policies that make it hard for them to do so. Last July, the government announced it would prioritize the deportation cases of recently-arrived children and families, pushing their cases ahead of others pending in the immigration courts. Immigration courts around the country started “rocket dockets” for children and families, and scheduled their first hearings only weeks or days after the government filed the case. As a result, hearings too often went forward with insufficient notice. Courts ordered children removed in absentia who were unaware of or unable to attend their hearings. Rocket dockets also have made it more difficult for children and families to find legal representation—crucial because people facing immigration proceedings, even children, are not guaranteed counsel. But lower representation rates lead to more in absentia orders. Data shows that counsel helps ensure appearances in court.

Other government practices sometimes frustrate efforts to comply with required appearances. For example, anecdotal reports suggest that some families were dropped off at bus stations without clear guidance on reporting to the government in the future. In addition, according to a 2012 report, participants in alternatives to detention (ATD) programs were not provided with sufficient information about the program, routinely went to check-ins but were not provided with proof of attendance, and were required to travel long distances in order to attend check-ins, even if inaccessible by public transportation.

The reality is that historically, most immigrants appear in immigration court. And where there is evidence that a person truly presents a flight risk, there are ATDs that can mitigate the risk, notwithstanding the problems with the government’s administration of the program. A government study found that 95 percent of persons on ATDs appeared for their scheduled removal hearings, from fiscal year 2011 to 2013. These alternatives cost the government $10.55 per day, compared to $158 per day for detention.

The misinformation about immigrants not showing up in immigration court is nothing new. Last July, Senator Jeff Flake said he heard that “90 percent” of children fail to show in immigration court. Data later rebutted that myth. Then, in the fall, myths circulated that “70 percent” of families failed to show in immigration court. Data rebutted that myth too. And CIS’ fuzzy math certainly isn’t new. This is an organization that once compared seven months’ data to twelve and said that deportations were down 40 percent. We’ve learned over the years that we need to do the math ourselves and question whether a desired storyline motivated CIS’ analysis. Undoubtedly, that’s what happened here.

Photo by Douglas Palmer.