I recently led a bipartisan congressional delegation to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to understand the truth behind the current surge of unaccompanied children and families through the southern U.S. border and to see how we can best end this crisis.
While the White House has been selling a narrative reliant on a surge of gang violence pushing refugee children from their homeland, we learned a more complete story of aggressive advertisement of immigration relief, or “permisos,” and the desire for reunification with an illegally present adult in the U.S. before the president finalizes comprehensive immigration reform or expands anti-deportation policies.
In El Salvador and Honduras, mayors reported that, although gang violence is a problem, there hadn’t been an uptick to coincide with the current surge of children to the U.S. In Guatemala, government officials and community outreach workers told us that gang violence was not a driver for children heading north, either.
Unfortunately, violence has long been a part of life in these countries. The less-fortunate are driven out of their homes by a lack of economic opportunity and enticed to go beyond neighboring countries because of our ambiguous and often-unenforced immigration laws.
Consistently, we heard that human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” are exploiting U.S. immigration policy to convince families and young children that they will be allowed to remain in America if they successfully cross the border. El Salvador Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez observed that the coyotes are promoting the journey to the U.S. as safe and maintaining that, once people cross the border, their problems are solved.
Facebook and Twitter are used to promote coyote services. Coyotes tell of the 2008 Trafficking Protection Act that slows U.S. deportation proceedings for illegal entrants from countries south of Mexico.
They talk of President Obama’s executive action to halt deportation of illegal children who have lived here for years under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. With renewals for the program underway and the president announcing possible expansion, the perceived opportunity to be included is now. And, there is the hope of the Senate amnesty bill becoming law for permanent reprieve.
The slow repatriation of these children to their home countries from the U.S. reinforces the coyotes’ message that the children are allowed to stay. While thousands enter our country each week, during our trip the first repatriation flight to Honduras arrived with 38 people. With coyotes promoting three trips for each fee, many will wait a short time and try again.
Coupled with the continual confirmation by the president to act on immigration without consent by stating, “We’re going to look every single day to figure out what we can do without Congress,” the long and dangerous trek from Central America is encouraged.
In response, the president proposes throwing billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to warehouse children upon arrival or complete the coyotes’ mission by releasing them to adult family members, many of whom are in the United States illegally. As usual, he wants the money to be free of policy changes, and he is unwilling to negotiate.
The generosity of Americans was already on display before the $3.7 billion White House request. We met with religious organizations and non-profits doing sound work to change the direction of the economy and opportunity in these countries.
The U.S. currently funds USAID and border security initiatives in all three places and in neighboring Mexico.
Our assistance will not end. But it should not be expanded without a solution to end these unsafe journeys taken by kids and families.
The most humane action we can take today is to facilitate the safe and immediate return of these children to families in their home countries. It’s the only way to defeat the promise of amnesty peddled by the coyotes who prey on them and the only action likely to keep the current crisis from growing into a much bigger one.