News & Politics

AP Deliberately Manipulates—Then Stealth Updates—Immigration Horror Story to Tie Obama-Era Abuse Case to Trump

This image provided by the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center shows part of the interior of the building in Staunton, Va. (Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center via AP)

On Wednesday night, the Associated Press ran an article that spread quickly Thursday morning across social media and other news outlets describing an horrific story of unbelievable abuse of minor immigrants in the custody and care of the United States government. Dubbed “Abu Ghraib for eighth-graders” by a Daily Beast reporter, the allegations in the explosive story included children being handcuffed, beaten, left in solitary confinement and, unimaginably, even worse.

In that Associated Press article describing these terrible and outrageous conditions, President Donald Trump’s name came up four times. It makes sense that Trump and his immigration policy would be a part of the story, considering the news of the last week regarding family separation and the detainment and detention of minor children.

However, the allegations in this article covered a time period prior to Trump ever taking office. The specific court case cited involves alleged incidents occurring before and during 2016, when Trump was still on the campaign trail and we had a different president.

That president, Barack Obama, was mentioned exactly zero times in the article.

Below is an excerpt from the court filing against Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia. The dates are clearly shown. The dates are not, though, *clearly* shown in the AP article. Instead, the lawsuit and allegations are described in summaries and quotes, and interspersed with commentary like this:

Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump said Wednesday that “our Border Patrol agents and our ICE agents have done one great job” cracking down on MS-13 gang members. “We’re throwing them out by the thousands,” he said.

And this:

Most children held in the Shenandoah facility who were the focus of the abuse lawsuit were caught crossing the border illegally alone. They were not the children who have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s recent policy and are now in the government’s care. But the facility there operates under the same program run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

That was subtle, making it seem as if the material difference isn’t the time of the detention but rather the manner of it and the details of the apprehension. They weren’t separated but crossing alone, it says. Not “This was years before Trump.”

They also finally include this line:

It was not immediately clear whether any separated children have been sent to Shenandoah Valley since the Trump administration in April announced its “zero tolerance” policy toward immigrant families, after the lawsuit was filed.

It’s not “clear” if any of the recently newsworthy separated children made it to this specific facility, they say. Oh, also the “zero tolerance” policy was enacted after the lawsuit was filed. But still no “the alleged incidents occurred during the Obama administration under Obama policy while Obama was president and not Trump.”

The story itself is a shocking expose and excellent reporting, except for the blatant manipulation to pin it to Trump. In fact, it is the fact that the story is so important and terrible and relevant that makes the manipulation infuriating.

Here is some of what is described, in blockquotes.

The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” for children who had problems at less-restrictive housing. The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California has faced litigation over immigrant children mischaracterized as gang members. In Alexandria, Virginia, a board overseeing the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center voted this week to end its contract to house federal immigration detainees, bowing to public pressure.

The Shenandoah detention center was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes. Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by both male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims. Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not yet been convicted of any crime.


The lawsuit filed against Shenandoah alleges that young Latino immigrants held there “are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care.”

The complaint filed by the nonprofit Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recounts the story of an unnamed 17-year-old Mexican citizen apprehended at the southern border. The teen fled an abusive father and violence fueled by drug cartels to seek asylum in the United States in 2015.

After stops at facilities in Texas and New York, he was transferred to Shenandoah in April 2016 and diagnosed during an initial screening by a psychologist with three mental disorders, including depression. Besides weekly sessions speaking with a counselor, the lawsuit alleges the teen has received no further mental health treatment, such as medications that might help regulate his moods and behavior.

The lawsuit recounts multiple alleged violent incidents between Latino children and staff at the Shenandoah center. It describes the guards as mostly white, non-Spanish speakers who are undertrained in dealing with individuals with mental illness. The suit alleges staff members routinely taunt the Latino youths with racially charged epithets, including “wetback,” ″onion head” and “pendejo,” which roughly translates to dumbass in Spanish.

Note the mention of 2015 and 2016 there, notably not remarking on policy at the time. Here are the listed dates from the lawsuit.

Again, it would have been easy, not to mention more thorough and accurate, to simply state that this took place under Obama’s term in office.

It would also have been fine not to bring up administration policy at all. What they did instead was mention Trump four times and Obama zero times.

And the reason why? Just ask the director of the ACLU Human Rights Program, Jamil Dakwar. Here was his reaction.

There were dozens more. Mission accomplished, AP?

What’s worse is that there was no new “news hook” to bring this story up as “breaking” on Thursday. In fact, the last activity on the case was in January. The next hearing isn’t until July.


This is an awful story and the allegations, which the center denies, are serious. That makes it only that much worse that it was manipulatively used by the AP reporters to pin the scandal to Trump and to ignore Obama-era policy, not to mention the actual dates of the incidents alleged. It’s a cynical and grotesque move.

It’s also one they were conscious of. Because after there was pushback against the story’s blatant omission, they stealth updated during the day on Thursday.

Here is the new (single) mention of Obama.



Playing politics is a term people use a lot, and it’s something everyone, including the Trump administration, has been doing with immigration policy and the border. Trump adviser Stephen Miller and former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon believe in and advocate manipulation in this way. They argue that it’s merely a response to how the media manipulates news every day. That certainly happened here.

Today, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced an investigation into the claims discussed in the AP article. Hopefully, some good will come of that investigation. It is an important story, which the AP exposed. And while they exposed it they tried to use it for partisan political purposes. Even if good comes of it, that’s not acceptable.

Do better.