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Lauren Boebert’s migrant misinformation trail winds back to Canada 2006

“Biden is giving each illegal family $2,200 per month plus a free plane ticket and free medical care. If you come to this country illegally, you get everything handed to you on a silver platter. If you’re a struggling American citizen, you get nothing. You actually just subsidize this foolishness.”

— Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), in a tweet, Sept. 8

Members of Congress have access to all sorts of information, some of it classified, that is generally beyond the reach of many Americans. With a phone call or a letter, a House member can obtain detailed statistics from government agencies. So the words of a lawmaker can carry weight.

This tweet by Boebert, for instance, went viral, earning more than 2 million views from more than 13,000 retweets.

We should point out that this claim is false, worthy of Four Pinocchios, and has been debunked over and over. Now, we have traced its start to false information first spread in Canada 17 years ago.

Undocumented immigrants — those Boebert refers to as illegal — do not receive monthly checks. Under a 1980 law, refugees — people who have documented that they are fleeing a war or persecution — may receive a one-time resettlement payment for items such as food, clothing, transportation or rent. Then they may qualify for cash assistance for a period of time not more than one year, with the amount varying by size of family. Afghan evacuees and some Ukrainians were also given a specific benefit by Congress.

It doesn’t require advanced math to reveal how bogus this claim is. The monthly payment claimed by Boebert would mean at least $26,400 a year per migrant. The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration limits and a merit-based immigration system, estimates that at least 2 million migrants have been released into the United States under President Biden.

If Boebert were right, 2 million undocumented immigrants would require an annual budget of about $53 billion — a line item hard to hide in the budget. The annual funding for the entire Department of Homeland Security provided by Congress is only about $60 billion a year.

We’re especially interested in how this misinformation reached a member of Congress in the first place. Let’s follow the misinformation trail.

Boebert’s staff did not respond to a request for comment but told a Colorado television station that her source was the Gateway Pundit, which is a widely popular news source. Its Facebook page has more than 600,000 followers. It’s also notorious for spreading false information.

NewsGuard, which rates the accuracy of news sources, says Gateway Pundit is “a far-right political website that publishes false and misleading content” and “regularly distorts information and occasionally spreads conspiracy theories.” Gateway Pundit earned from NewsGuard a score of 20 out of 100 — which means the “website is unreliable because it severely violates basic journalistic standards.”

On Sept. 7, Gateway Pundit’s editor, Jim Hoft, posted an article titled “Outrageous! Border Patrol Agent Reveals Biden Regime Gives $2,200 of Taxpayer Money Per Illegal Immigrant Family, Plus a Plane Ticket, Housing, Food, Free Medical Services.”

The article compared the alleged payments to these: “the average American on Social Security receives just $1,400 per month and Maui survivors with only $700.” (The monthly average for Social Security checks is actually $1,837.)

So what was Holt’s source? He referred to a video interview with an anonymous Border Patrol agent, conducted by Todd Bensman, a fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, and posted on Sept. 6. That interview earned almost 100,000 views.

“They get a check every month … a cost-of-living check, along with housing and food and medical,” the agent said as Bensman kept his camera on a group of migrants at the Texas border. Bensman asked how much the check was and the agent replied: “My understanding, I’ve heard it’s about 2,200 a month.”

In his tweet over the video, Bensman indicated this was not yet solid information: “will need to independently confirm but hmmmm.” But that did not stop Gateway Pundit from running with it as established fact. (Holt did not respond to a request for comment.)

So where did this Border Patrol agent get this information? It’s possible he saw an interview that former Fox host Tucker Carlson conducted on X, formerly known as Twitter, with retired Col. Douglas Macgregor on Aug. 21.

“We hand every alleged asylum seeker, illegal immigrant pouring in through the border in Texas or wherever else, we hand them when they get here, $2,200,” Macgregor told Carlson. “And we put them on that $2,200 diet from there on out, per month. Yet somebody who works all his life retires and draws Social Security gets $1,400.”

On Sept. 9, Bensman posted on X a viral TikTok clip of Macgregor’s remarks. He commented: “$2,200 checks to illegal aliens again? Even short of details, unverified claims like this, like the old song goes, ‘makes ya wanna go hmmmm.’” That tweet received 33,000 views.

A day later, Bensman backed off after he was challenged by other people on X, including Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant group. In a tweet that got about 2,500 views, Bensman said that he was beginning to believe the agent had conflated payments given to Afghan refugees with those he claimed were given to all undocumented immigrants crossing the border.

Bensman says he handled the information appropriately.

“My tweets said it was unverified, that I had not independently confirmed the agent’s claim, and I later sent another one out saying he was probably mistaking it for the Afghan payments of up to 3 months,” Bensman said in an email to The Fact Checker. “I was hoping to get to the bottom of it. Maybe an expert would send a link or explain it. I think the agent conflated a couple of programs. But nowhere will anyone read that I called this established truth.”

So where did Macgregor get his information? We received a curious response when we asked.

In an email, Macgregor provided a link to a news story from a conservative Texas radio station, KTRH of Houston, titled: “Biden Giving Illegals $2,200 Per Month Welfare, Only $1,400 to US Retirees.” The story was dated Aug. 28, seven days after his interview.

The article cited an Aug. 22 news release by a group called Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, generally known as ALIPAC. “Biden Admin Giving Illegals $2,200 Per Month Welfare, Only $1,400 to US Retirees,” said the news release’s headline.

What was the source for ALIPAC? Macgregor’s own interview with Carlson.

To bolster his claim, Macgregor also sent us another source — Bensman’s interview with the Border Patrol agent.

We did not hear back from Macgregor after we pointed out that the KTRH article relied on a news release that quoted him and that Bensman had concluded the border agent spoke in error.

In an interview, Reichlin-Melnick suggested that Macgregor’s source might have been a moderately viral July 24 tweet by a group called Texans for Strong Borders: “Did you know: The government pays out $2,125/month in refugee benefits to refugees resettled in the United States. Meanwhile, Social Security recipients who have paid into the system their entire lives receive $1,400/month on average.” That tweet received 56,000 views. Note, however, that the tweet referred to refugees, not all migrants.

Macgregor also did not respond when we asked if that was the case. Texans for Strong Borders also did not respond to a query about its sourcing.

The depressing thing about this chronicle of misinformation is that it’s been debunked before.

In 2021, an Instagram post quoted a 2019 tweet by conservative activist Charlie Kirk: “Did you know? The government pays out $2,125/month in refugee benefits to refugees resettled in the United States. Meanwhile, Social Security recipients who have paid into the system their whole live receive $1,400/month on average.” This is word for word the same as the recent Texans for Strong Borders tweet, except with a small typo.

Kirk erred in claiming refugees got a monthly payment that high. A Kirk spokesman told PolitiFact that he was relying on a 2018 fact check — though that fact check did not refer to monthly payments. The Instagram post was deleted; Kirk’s post is still active. (Kirk did not respond to a request for comment.)

And what was PolitiFact fact-checking in 2018? A Facebook meme that made this false claim: “Illegal refugees get $3,874/mo. under the Federal Assistance Program. Our SS checks are approximately $1,200/mo.”

That meme in turn was based on a Facebook post that Snopes in 2017 debunked — a post that referred (falsely) to refugee policy in Canada.

The post showed an authentic image of resettlement payment in Canada — but in a misleading way. The $3,874 in Canadian dollars (or $2,748 in U.S. dollars at the time) was for a family of five and it was a one-time payment — not a monthly one.

But it turns out that even this was not new. In 2006, on a webpage called “Just the Facts,” Canada’s immigration department was compelled to post a statement debunking the idea that refugees received more financial assistance on a monthly basis than pensioners.

This is a good example of the outrage machine in motion. People are so quick to seize on information that confirms a false belief — that immigrants get more than U.S. citizens from the government — that few stop to think twice before spreading it across social media. It’s much easier to click “like” and repost.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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