Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) recently led a bipartisan delegation of Committee Members to Central America to understand the recent border crisis involving unaccompanied children illegally entering the United States. During the fact finding mission, from Thursday July 17th to Sunday July 20th, Members traveled to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to assess root causes of the surge in migration as well as U.S. and local efforts to address the crisis. Chairman Issa released the following observations:
1. Why are children flooding the U.S. border from their home countries in Central America?
Economics and chain migration. In each country, government officials, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations reported that a severe lack of economic opportunity is the primary motivational factor for migration to the U.S. These leaders described a common story that parents, having left their home country to find work in the U.S., often illegally, are sending for their children to join them. In a gang prevention program (similar to the D.A.R.E program in the U.S.) in El Salvador, about half of a classroom of about 40 ten-year-old kids raised their hands when we asked if they had parents and relatives in the U.S., and all of those children raised their hands when asked if they wanted to go to the U.S. someday. In El Salvador, mayors reported that, while gang violence is a problem, there had not been any particular uptick of violent gang crime coinciding or causing the current surge. Guatemalan government officials and community outreach workers told us that gang violence wasn’t driving their children north.
2. What do the children believe will happen when they reach the United States?
The visible lack of deportations to Central American countries lend credibility to coyotes who try to convince would-be customers that new U.S. policies will allow children to stay in the U.S. Though it is often misunderstood in Central America, the existence of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some illegal aliens who arrived as children to stay in the United States and protections afforded by the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Protection Act, which make deportation very difficult are well-known in this part of the world. In fact, our Codel consistently heard that human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” use these policies as part of a pitch to convince families and young children that they will be able to remain in the United States like other children who have come here illegally. Hugo Martinez, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister 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. The coyotes even use Facebook and Twitter to promote their “services.” People in Central America are keenly aware that only a small portion of children who make it to the United States have been repatriated – we saw centers set-up for returning children and potential sites that sit empty. The lack of deportations and repatriations – and the lack of anecdotes about migrants making it to the U.S. and being returned home – reinforces the coyotes’ message that children are allowed to stay and encourages more to make the dangerous journey.
3. What can the United States do to help El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala address this crisis?
Make clear that illegal immigration to the U.S. is not rewarded; assist border enforcement in Central America; increase public awareness of the dangerous journey to the U.S.; and maintain our national efforts to help these countries give people a better life.
· National government officials, U.S. embassy staff, and workers at repatriation centers for children report that between 70 % and 90% of all repatriations come from apprehensions in Mexico – not the United States. Both in word and deed, U.S. officials need to do much more to correct the perception that migrants will be able to stay – legally or illegally – in the United States once they pass through Mexico. Because Mexico is much more aggressive in deporting Central American migrants, it leaves an impression that the U.S. is less opposed to accepting those that cross our border. The U.S. must streamline its deportation process and U.S. officials must forcefully and consistently articulate that illegal immigrants making a dangerous journey will not be allowed to stay if they do not meet strict asylum criteria now or in the future.
· We must help El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala focus resources on enforcing current laws and enacting new laws that punish those who wantonly smuggle children across our border. Religious leaders in El Salvador emphasized that a lack of law enforcement was part of the reason coyotes are able to place children in danger. Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, emphasized that El Salvador’s leaders need to solve their people’s problems in El Salvador itself – to create an El Salvadorian dream for people to attain, rather than the American dream. U.S. officials in Honduras noted that criminal convictions are rare, and prosecutions of smugglers are nearly nonexistent. Embassy officials told us that a drop in Mexican migrations to the United States has made the coyotes more aggressive seeking out customers to smuggle from Guatemala. Borders among Central American nations are largely unguarded. For example, Guatemala has no dedicated border security unit. The Codel was told that bribes for Mexican guards on the border with Guatemala are part of the smuggling routine for buses that pass through with migrants.
· These illegal border crossings are incredibly dangerous. The children who attempt the journey risk serious injury, illness, amputations, rape, and even death, according to representatives in all three countries. We visited nongovernmental organizations–including an organization that sponsors radio shows aimed at getting the word out about the dangers of migration–to educate families about these journeys. We also visited repatriations centers in El Salvador and Honduras that receive children returned from both the United States and Mexico. Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras said that the Hernandez government has consistent policy goals with the U.S. The First Lady of Honduras has been involved in a campaign that promotes the government’s desire for migrants to return home. The governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala must undertake further efforts to educate children and families about the perilous journey to the U.S. Those public relations efforts are completely ineffective, however, if the U.S. does not quickly return illegal immigrants caught on the border.
· We saw numerous projects funded by the generosity of the American people through USAID and other organizations. These projects seek to give the children of these nations a better future that doesn’t lead them to take a dangerous journey to become illegal aliens believing they will eventually receive amnesty. Embassy officials told us that of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., approximately 1.5 million are Guatemalan, and that number will only continue to grow. Additionally, in Guatemala, the number one source of income for the country is the remittances sent from Guatemalans living abroad due to the lack of opportunities at home. In Honduras, we learned that in reality national education ends after age 12. The blending of extensive family networks between the U.S. and Central America, low national education levels, and the idea of “permisos” – the idea that future changes will grant immigrants who arrive in time permission to stay in the United States – creates a potent sale for coyotes seeking business. Helping build a better future for the people of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is critical to de-incentivizing the willingness of many to undertake a dangerous journey.