(CNN)President Donald Trump appeared to assert Thursday that women from Central America are raped at "levels that nobody has ever seen before" as an argument for strengthening US immigration laws.
Trump claims female migrants 'are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before'
It is unclear where Trump derived the evidence for his seeming assertion that Central American women are being raped at unprecedented levels.
During a roundtable discussion on tax reform in West Virginia, the President devoted several minutes of his remarks to illegal immigration, including commenting about a caravan of migrants that includes some people attempting to reach the US border through Mexico.
"And remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened," Trump said, referring to his 2015 presidential announcement speech, in which he argued that Mexico is "not sending their best. ...They're rapists."
"Everybody said, 'Oh, he was so tough,' and I used the word rape," Trump said Thursday. "And yesterday, it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that. So we have to change our laws."
The caravan of Central American migrants, organized by activists, is an annual event designed to highlight the dangerous journey that immigrants must undertake to escape violent and unstable conditions in their home countries. The migrants on the journey, who are mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, hope to make it to the US border, where they can make claims that they qualify for asylum.
"Not sure why the media is acting like this isn't a well-established fact -- women and young girls are brutally victimized on the journey north," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement later Thursday. "Strikes me as quite bizarre that reporters would try to cover up the gross atrocities perpetrated by smugglers and coyotes."
Sanders pointed to a Los Angeles Times report Tuesday that said "robberies, rapes and assaults — perpetrated by smugglers, cartel members and Mexican immigration agents — are common."
CNN correspondent Leyla Santiago, who is reporting in Puebla, Mexico, told anchor Jake Tapper on CNN's "The Lead" that women are choosing to travel with the caravan partly because of the concern about violence and assault on the journey.
Santiago said she had spoken with one Salvadoran woman who argued that the reason they are traveling with the caravan is to provide safety in numbers.
Latin America Working Group's senior associate for Mexico and migration told CNN that Trump is "just looking for more excuses to demonize migrants from Latin America, migrants who are currently on the caravan."
"It really makes absolutely no sense to use this narrative that migrants, who are coming because of violence, are violent themselves, and then say that's why we need to close our border," Daniella Burgi-Palomino told CNN on Thursday, adding, "The woman who's endured sexual abuse should not be turned away at the border. She's in need of health and medical attention."
Burgi-Palomino said her organization's research with migrant shelters in Mexico and Central America has shown that about 1 in 3 women endure some kind of sexual abuse at the hands of migration agents or organized crime while transiting Mexico.
Trump has repeatedly called attention to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, invoking the violent gang MS-13, in calling for tougher immigration laws, and he claimed repeatedly during his campaign that such immigrants pose a threat to public safety despite studies that have shown they are less likely to be incarcerated than US citizens.
On Thursday, the President pointed to what he called Mexico's and Canada's "tough" policies on immigration and lamented that children born in the United States to noncitizen parents are automatically citizens.
"If you have a baby on our land, congratulations, that baby is a United States citizen," Trump said.
The President also laid blame for US immigration policy on Democrats as he has repeatedly done in the past, saying, "It's insanity."
Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats for failed negotiations on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that protected undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. Trump moved to end the program in September, but it has been kept alive in the courts.