On at least three occasions over the last two months, former President Donald Trump has claimed that the leaders of unnamed South American countries are deliberately emptying their “insane asylums” and “mental institutions” to send the patients to the United States as migrants.
In each version of the dramatic story, Trump has claimed he recently read about a doctor at a South American mental institution who said he used to be busy but now has no work to do because all of his patients have been released into the US.
In a mid-April speech to the National Rifle Association, Trump said: “I read a story not long ago where a man who takes care of a large segment of people in a mental institution in a South American country, a doctor, sounded like a great man actually – he said he no longer has anything to do. He used to work 24-hour days. He said, ‘All of our patients have been released into the United States of America.’”
Trump added more color to the story in a Thursday campaign speech in New Hampshire: “There was a story recently about a psychologist. Or psychiatrist. But a psychologist. Who worked in mental wards in South America. And he said, ‘I worked 24…’ – a good man – he worked 24 hours a day taking care of very mentally ill people. And he was sitting there reading a newspaper and they asked him, what – what’s he doing? He said, ‘I have no more work. The people have all been let go into the United States.’ Can you believe? This is what we’re doing.”
But Trump has given listeners no reason to believe him on this.
Facts First: Trump’s campaign was unable to provide any evidence of the existence of a news story about a no-longer-busy doctor at a South American mental institution – and the campaign also failed to provide any evidence that South American countries are emptying mental health facilities to somehow send patients into the US. Representatives for two anti-immigration organizations told us they had not heard of anything that would corroborate any of Trump’s story, as did three experts at organizations favorable toward immigration. CNN’s own search did not produce any evidence. The website FactCheck.org also found nothing.
It is extremely difficult to definitively prove that a news article about an unnamed mental institution in an unnamed country doesn’t exist, so, in the interest of caution, we won’t declare with certainty that Trump’s story is a fabrication – and we will update this article if someone does provide belated proof. At the very least, though, people should treat his story with great skepticism.
How we searched for proof of Trump’s story
CNN conducted a broad search for any proof for Trump’s story.
First we reached out to Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung to ask for proof. In response, Cheung sent us links to news articles that were not proof. These articles did not mention anything about South American mental health facilities being emptied under President Joe Biden, nor feature any quote from a doctor at any such facility.
Cheung did cite a report that late Cuban despot Fidel Castro included mental health patients in the Mariel boatlift of 1980 (they made up a small percentage of the people involved in the boatlift), but that was 43 years ago; Trump’s stories have all been present-tense claims about events purportedly happening during Biden’s presidency. And Cheung highlighted a 2022 article from right-wing website Breitbart News about Venezuela supposedly freeing criminals from prison to become migrants. Breitbart’s vague and unverified claim did not mention mental health facilities or doctors at all.
We then reached out to a pro-Trump super PAC asking for evidence for Trump’s “mental institution” story, but a spokesperson didn’t respond. We next turned to two groups that advocate for reduced immigration, the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which would be good candidates to be aware of any such evidence. The center’s Mark Krikorian and the federation’s Ira Mehlman also noted the 1980 boatlift from Cuba, but they said they hadn’t seen anything that would corroborate Trump’s claims about the present.
Three experts from organizations favorable toward immigration – Migration Policy Institute president Andrew Selee, American Immigration Council policy director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick and Washington Office on Latin America director for defense oversight Adam Isacson – also said they had seen nothing to support Trump’s claims. And our own search of online search engines and a database of news articles did not turn up anything.
As a last resort, we posted Trump’s quotes on Twitter and invited the public to try to find support for them. More than 30 hours later, nobody had.