Congress grilled the Department of Homeland Security this week in a series of hearings on the problem of thousands of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States.
The first hearing was held Tuesday in front of the House Homeland Security Committee and Secretary Jeh Johnson testified on the work that DHS is doing to handle the situation. Following his appearance on Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing of its own Wednesday and further scrutinized the department’s actions.
“There is a tsunami hitting our nation’s southern border—unaccompanied alien minors and adults traveling with minors are arriving in unprecedented numbers,” Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in his opening statement. “Central American minors, largely teenagers, are making a perilous journey through Mexico and then walking miles across a hostile border environment, assisted by smugglers, and coming to the United States in violation of the law.”
According to estimates, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects to apprehend more than 90,000 unaccompanied minors on the border this year. This estimate would equal a 1,381 percent increase in apprehensions since 2011. There has also been a drastic increase in the number of adults apprehended with minors attempting to cross the border. According to DHS estimates, there has been a 143 percent increase in families apprehended at the border since 2012.
Many of them are walking part of the way to the border and then catching trains through Mexico or purchasing bus tickets to the border. Others are relying on smugglers to transport them to the border. Of the minors crossing the border, 80 percent of them are boys and 83 percent of them are older than 14 years old. They’re mainly coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all of which have a history of violence and poverty.
Ranking committee member Rep. John Conyers, Jr., (D-MI) reiterated this in his statement at the hearing. “Each of these countries, the level of violence is sky high and the ability of the government to protect its most vulnerable citizens is low,” he explained. “Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world and El Salvador and Guatemala are close behind.”
These countries are also ripe with corruption and gang violence, which news reports suggest are now targeting youth in an effort to recruit more members or persuade the general public into supporting their efforts. Oftentimes, law enforcement also plays a role in the violence within these nations, as earlier in June the former head of Guatemala’s national police was found guilty of murdering seven people and sentenced to life in prison.
All of the individuals testifying at the hearing acknowledged that violence is one of the reasons that thousands of people are attempting to cross the border illegally. Other reasons included the lack of economic opportunity in their home countries, the desire to reunite with family members in the United States, and the belief that if they crossed the border and turned themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol, they would be allowed to stay.
Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118, testified at the hearing and said that confusion over U.S. policies on immigration and lack of reform are contributing to the problem.
“Continued talk in the United States of amnesty and legalization without appropriate law enforcement safeguards first put in place will continue to draw millions like a magnet to our southern border,” he said. “The most humane thing that we can do as Americans is to deter crisis like this one through consistent enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws.”
One of the main components under fire at the hearing was the coined “Catch and Release Program,” which is federal law and requires minors to be detained by Border Patrol, processed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and then placed with a family member or a close family friend who will care for the child. While in the family’s care, the child is required to go through a court process for deportation and can be deported from the United States, as can the family members if they are also in the country illegally. This process, however, is not swift and it can take years for minors to face even their first court proceeding that will determine their fate.
Brandon Judd, president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Border Patrol Council, said this aspect of the law—putting minors in care of their families—encourages people from countries other than Mexico to enter the United States illegally.
“Under this policy, and in most cases, individuals entering the United States illegally know they will be released if apprehended,” he explained. “The result is no one is afraid of breaking the law…although unaccompanied minors are still subject to deportation through the removal process, we have to be honest with ourselves. Most will never honor the notice to appear in court and face deportation. They simply fail to appear and blend into the community.”
Handling the Situation
Instead of releasing minors into family care, Judd argued that Border Patrol should detain them until they have gone through the court process for deportation. “We know from experience that the chance of minors being deported after they’ve failed to appear in court is small, once they’ve been released into the community,” he said. “We need to follow through enforcing the laws of this nation, so that breaking the law carries consequences.”
These consequences might also stem the flow of migrants who are coming to the United States through smugglers who charge individuals, or families, sometimes thousands of dollars to transport them to the border. The smugglers often have ties to cartels in the region and when they bring individuals to the border, they tell them to enter between the ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley. This results in confusion and additional stress for Border Patrol agents who are often pulled off their normal duties to handle the influx of migrants attempting to cross the border in remote locations.
To attempt to handle the situation on the ground, Deputy Chief of Border Patrol Ronald Vitiello of Customs and Border Protection says the agency has worked with other agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), FEMA, and HHS. Efforts have included increasing the transportation for migrants and increasing detention capacity through the opening of shelters at military bases in various parts of the country.
DHS is also adding detention capacity for adults who cross the border illegally with their children in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s currently in the process of establishing a 700-bed facility at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s campus in Artesia, New Mexico. This will improve on the existing facility, which was filled to capacity with only 90 beds for families. DHS is looking into adding additional facilities to help handle the influx and expedite the removal of the increasing number of adults with children illegally crossing the border.
Additionally, DHS and HHS are working to make sure all detainees are given a public health screening when they arrive at facilities to screen for any symptoms of contagious diseases or other possible public health concerns. So far, there has only been one confirmed case of H1N1, also known as swine flu, and vaccines were sent to the appropriate facility to ensure that it did not spread.
Committee members also raised concerns during the hearing about the issue of minors and trafficking as the U.S. government’s ability to verify who minors are is limited. Oftentimes, Vitiello said that agents have to rely on what the children tell them their names are and who their family member is in the United States that they want to be reunited with as minors usually do not have any documentation to verify their identity. Once Border Patrol has interviewed the minor, HHS conducts a background check on the family member they’re asking to be placed with. However, it’s not always possible to verify if the individuals are related.
Border patrol agents are also limited when they first engage minors as they cannot collect finger prints from them unless they are 14 or older. Only later are minors assigned an A number, or alien number, that’s used to track their process through the system. This process raised criticism from some members of the committee who were concerned that children would slip through the cracks of the system and the government would have no way to track them down later.
Stemming the Flow
Along with its efforts to expedite the process and increase resources available to help with the illegal crossing, the U.S. government is working to address the root cause of why people are traveling to the country in record numbers. DHS has been in contact with senior government officials of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico to assess how the countries can work together to stop the mass exodus.
Vice President Joseph Biden has also announced that the United States will be providing a new range of assistance to Central America. The U.S. is planning to pledge $9.6 million in additional funding for Central American governments to receive and reintegrate their repatriated citizens, a $40 million U.S. Agency for International Development program in Guatemala over five years to improve citizen security, and $161.5 million to the Central American Regional Security Initiative to help countries respond to the region’s most pressing security and governance challenges.
While the federal government works with other regional governments, DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are working together to increase investigation, prosecution, and dismantling of smuggling organizations that are facilitating border crossings into the Rio Grande Valley. In his statement, Vitiello said that increased efforts in a month-long, targeted enforcement operation that focused on the southwest border resulted in 163 arrests of smugglers with operations in El Paso, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego.
DHS plans to continue this focus on taking down smuggling operations as they “not only facilitate illegal migration across our border, they traumatize and exploit the children who are objects of their smuggling operation,” Vitiello said in his statement.
DHS is also stepping up its public affairs campaigns in Spanish with radio, print, and TV spots to communicate the dangers of sending unaccompanied children to the United States. As part of the campaign, Secretary Johnson penned a letter to parents in Central America that was released to newspapers and other outlets, telling them that if they send their children to America, there is no free pass and their children will not be allowed to stay.
No hearings are scheduled on the border security situation for next week as Congress is not in session. However, the House Judiciary Committee is planning a trip to the Rio Grande Valley region to further assess the situation.