Did Sarah Sanders say the diversity visa lottery system does not vet applicants?

PolitiFact logo“White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that immigrants coming to the United States through the diversity visa program are not vetted before their arrival.”

—PolitiFact, from a Nov. 2, 2017 fact check of Sarah Huckabee Sanders

 

Summary

PolitiFact may have misled its readers about what Sanders was saying.

Background facts

After an immigrant acting in the name of ISIS used a truck to run over a number of New Yorkers on Oct. 31, 2017, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to questions from the press about the White House view of the diversity visa program under which the alleged assailant had legally entered the United States. PolitiFact highlighted for a fact check part of one of Sanders’ responses to a question, saying Sanders said that potential immigrants under the program received no vetting (bold emphasis added):

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that immigrants coming to the United States through the diversity visa program are not vetted before their arrival.

Her remarks came a day after a terrorist attack in New York City left eight people dead and about a dozen injured. President Donald Trump said the suspect came to the country via the diversity visa program, which allows up to 50,000 people a year from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Program participants are selected through a random, computer-generated lottery.

 

Did Sanders make the claim PolitiFact said she made?

PolitiFact provided quotations from Sanders as evidence (bold emphasis added):

“One of the best things that we have in this country is the fact that everybody wants to be here, and to give that away randomly, to have no vetting system, to have no way to determine who comes, why they are here and if they want to contribute to society is a problem,” Sanders said in a Nov. 1 press briefing.

Sanders said that “to try to argue that this is a system that thoroughly vets people shows a total lack of understanding” of the process.

 

Was Sanders saying that the visa lottery has not vetting  system at all as in the first part of the quotation PolitiFact provided? Or was Sanders saying the visa lottery system fails to thoroughly vet people, as with the second part of the quotation? Or perhaps both, since having no vetting at all would lead to a failure to do thorough vetting?

Analysis

How should a fact checker proceed when a political figure makes a number of statements in the same context that do not perfectly mesh with one another?

Sanders made one statement that one could reasonably interpret to mean the diversity visa program involves no vetting at all. On the other hand, in the same press conference Sanders made other statements allowing that some vetting takes place but not enough.

PolitiFact’s fact check made it unnecessarily difficult to check the context, linking as it did to the entire long press conference and the imperfect C-SPAN transcript. On the plus side, the quotations PolitiFact used were suitably accurate.

We trimmed the C-SPAN video down to the relevant section.

The transcript of the event posted at Whitehouse.gov was less accurate than PolitiFact’s (bold emphasis added):

Q Sarah, the President talked about wanting merit-based immigration today and criticized the diversity visa program. Is he aware that the diversity visa program actually does have a merit-based component to it?

MS. SANDERS: Look, there may be a component of it, but the fact that we have a lottery system that randomly decides who gets the greatest opportunity in the world — one of the best things that we have in this country is the fact that everybody wants to be here. And to give that away randomly, to have to vetting no system [to have no vetting system–ed.], to have no way to determine who comes, why they’re here, and if they want to contribute to society, is a problem.

And the President strongly supports making sure that the people that come here want to be here for the right reasons and not to bring harm to our country. And I don’t think that’s something that any American should want to support.

Jim.

Q They’re ranked by their job that they have had and they have to have a minimum education.

MS. SANDERS: Peter, the whole idea is that they are randomly selected. This isn’t —

Q They have to meet certain criteria and have certain rankings. It’s not entirely random.

MS. SANDERS: It’s the lowest level of criteria that any part of our immigration system has is through the lottery system. And so to try to argue that this is a system that thoroughly vets people shows a total lack of understanding for what this process is.

Q So the 350,000 people have come in since the Uzbek gentleman yesterday came in — 350,000 people come into the country on this program. One of them now, apparently, has been accused of a terrorist act. One of the 350,000 create a problem then for that program?

MS. SANDERS: There may be more. Look, all I know is that you can’t randomly select people and not have them thoroughly vetted and not have the ability to know whether or not these people want to do good things or bad things when they get here. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that people that want to come to this country go through a vetting process to make sure that, when they get here, they want to contribute to society and not harm the people of this country.

Jim.

 

The ambiguity problem

Applying the principle of charitable interpretation

Sanders’ phrase “to have no vetting system” only has one meaning, aside from consideration of the context: No vetting system. There is nothing in her phrasing that has the type of variation in meaning that should make us reconsider her intent.

However, the wider context of Sanders’ statement should caution us against jumping on the meaning of the isolated phrase “have no vetting system.” In the same context, Sanders made other statements about the vetting system that suggest she acknowledged that diversity visa applicants receive some vetting. We have highlighted those variations in her wording in the preceding quotations.

Sanders was clear that the administration finds the diversity visa vetting inadequate. But Sanders’ words, in context, do not make clear that the administration thinks the diversity visa program does no vetting at all.

PolitiFact’s principles

In his book “Deciding What’s True,” chronicling the rise of political fact-checking, Lucas Graves noted PolitiFact requires its researchers to try to contact the source of a claim (Page 118):

PolitiFact requires its fact-checkers to contact the author of a claim and asks them to make that the very first step in fact-checking it.

 

We think obtaining clarification from the speaker counts as essential in a case like this one. Proceeding with a fact check based merely on what a speaker may have meant shortchanges readers.

The PolitiFact fact check, by Miriam Valverde, did not report whether an attempt was made to contact Sanders.

An alternate approach

By detaching the claim from the person, a fact checker may address a question like this one without the same risk of misleading its audience.

The fact checker could note that a statement like the one from Sanders may, especially if taken out of context, produce the impression that the diversity visa program does no vetting at all. The fact checker may then proceed to provide information about the vetting of diversity visa programs, hopefully while avoiding the one-sidedness of PolitiFact’s fact check. PolitiFact, for example, failed to delve into the potential difficulty of verifying records from the nation of origin (except in the specific case of Iran).

Our fact check, of course, does not focus on whether the diversity visa program includes a vetting process. Rather, we are merely looking at whether Sanders said what PolitiFact claimed she said.

We don’t know, and we do not expect to know without Sanders offering some clarification. We doubt that PolitiFact knows any better than we do.

We have used Twitter to try to prompt Sanders to spell out what she was trying to say, and we will update this item if we receive any response.

Conclusion

“White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that immigrants coming to the United States through the diversity visa program are not vetted before their arrival.”

We judge that PolitiFact may have fallen into a logical booby trap. By failing to consider the full context of Sanders’ remarks, PolitiFact may have jumped to a false conclusion about what Sanders was saying.

While PolitiFact may prove correct in it judgment of Sanders’ meaning, we judge that PolitiFact failed to properly justify its conclusion. If the conclusion was false, as we suspect, then PolitiFact unfairly harmed Sanders.

Fact checkers carry a heightened responsibility to avoid using quotations out of context. That goes hand in hand with not using paraphrases of or summaries of quotations taken out of context.

 

Reference materials

Valverde, Miriam. “Diversity Visa Applicants Are Vetted, despite Contrary Claim from White House Press Secretary.” Politifact, Tampa Bay Times, 2 Nov. 2017.

Sanders, Sarah Huckabee. “White House Considers New York Terrorist Suspect Enemy Combatant, Nov 1 2017.” C-SPAN.org, C-SPAN.org, 1 Nov. 2017.

Sanders, Sarah Huckabee. “Sarah Huckabee Sanders on the Immigration Lottery.” C-SPAN.org, C-SPAN.org, 1 Nov. 2017.

Sanders, Sarah Huckabee. “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, 11/1/2017, #30.” WhiteHouse.gov, The White House, 1 Nov. 2017.

Graves, Lucas. “Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism.” Columbia University Press, New York, 2016.

Diversity VIsa Program and Its Susceptibility to Fraud and Abuse.” GPO.gov, Government Printing Office, 29 Apr. 2004,

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