STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's check some facts in one vital part of President Trump's State of the Union speech. We are, of course, covering different parts of that speech in different parts of today's program. And some of the more passionate moments of President Trump's address last night came when he demanded a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2019 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers and human traffickers out of business.
INSKEEP: You will recall it was the president's demand for a wall that drove a partial government shutdown. Congress is still discussing whether to fund it. And the president made several specific claims to support his call for that wall, which NPR's Joel Rose heard while in the border town of Yuma, Ariz., which I believe is where we found him. Hi there, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK. The president said, among other things - this is a quote - "tens of thousands of innocent Americans are killed by lethal drugs that cross our border." Is that true?
ROSE: It's true, as far as it goes. But experts including, you know, the Trump administration itself say that many of the drugs, most of the drugs, that are seized at the Southern border come through ports of entry, so not the wide-open spaces, you know, between the ports where, you know, the president would like to expand the border wall, but in fact through the ports like Nogales, Ariz., where there was just a major, major fentanyl bust last week. That is typical, in fact, of how illegal drugs are seized as they cross the Southern border.
INSKEEP: Oh, which is why some of the debate about border security has revolved around, should we be spending money on a wall or maybe spending more money on technology at legal ports of entry? Here is another statement by the president, another quote. "The savage gang MS-13 now operates in at least 20 different American states, and they almost all come through our Southern border" - words of the president of the United States. Where does MS-13 come from, Joel?
ROSE: The gang was founded in the United States in Los Angeles in the 1970s and '80s before spreading to Central America. Experts on MS-13 says the president often exaggerates the reach of the gang, that many gang members are immigrants who are recruited, but they're recruited inside the United States. In other words, they're not MS-13 gang members when they arrive at the Southern border. Experts believe a lot of the recruiting happens inside the U.S. in, you know, towns up and down the East Coast, for example.
INSKEEP: Definitely a connection to Central America then, but a wall doesn't necessarily stop them. One more question, one more statement from the president - no issue better illustrates the divide between America's working class and America's political class than illegal immigration. Why is the president pointing to harm to the working class from immigration?
ROSE: Well, there is some evidence that immigration drives down wages for native-born people, especially folks in the U.S. who have only a high school education or less, and that there are businesses that benefit from these lower wages, including, we might note, some of President Trump's own golf courses in New Jersey and New York, which reportedly fired undocumented immigrants recently after published reports that they were employed at those clubs. But overall, most - excuse me. But overall, most economists say that immigration is actually a benefit, a net benefit, to the economy.
INSKEEP: OK. We've got some fact-checking then from NPR's Joel Rose, who is on the Southern border and was also talking with people there as the speech was going on and afterward. What have you been hearing?
ROSE: Well, the president called this an urgent national crisis. But not everyone down here that I've spoken to feels like it is a crisis. I watched the speech at a bar last night in Yuma, Ariz., on Main Street. And I talked to this young woman, who is in college in the area, named Aimara Farfan.
AIMARA FARFAN: I've lived here my entire life, coming in and out of the border. And just living here, 15 minutes away from the border, I don't feel unsafe. Now, is there issues that we need to address? Yes. Is it a crisis? No.
INSKEEP: OK. So not everybody buys the word crisis. Do people buy the idea of expanding the fence and wall that already exist on the border?
ROSE: Well, some people, like Aimara, think that that is a waste of money, that we already have, you know, nearly 700 miles of wall and fencing. But there are definitely people who support the president and want to see that expanded. I talked to Michael and Donna White of Yuma. He is a former customs officer here, and he thinks a border wall, a better wall, would help with security.
MICHAEL WHITE: I worked on the border for seven years. There is nothing there except for the fence, the small fence. They climb over it every day.
DONNA WHITE: Every day, he came home with stories - guns, drugs, people, hiding, smuggling. It absolutely is a crisis.
ROSE: In his speech last night, President Trump argued, as he has before, that walls work, that they stop illegal immigration. But Democrats and others argue there are other measures that could work better, like more officers, more technology and more surveillance on the border.
INSKEEP: Joel, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
ROSE: Hey. You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.