Confusion on the Border

U.S. officials: Criminal groups in Central America, disinformation on U.S. entry policy, are major forces behind immigration crisis

two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held
Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held / AP
• August 5, 2014 1:30 pm


Human smuggling groups in Central America and disinformation about American entry policies are the main drivers behind the current crisis involving more than 50,000 illegal immigrant children that sought entry into the United States, according to U.S. officials.

According to Customs and Border Protection, about 52,000 children were apprehended as of mid June entering the country through the Mexican border. Three quarters of the child immigrants come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Officials familiar with intelligence briefings on the immigration crisis said gangs in El Salvador, in particular, have forced many parents there to send their children to the United States to seek a better life—based on disinformation regarding U.S. immigration policies.

Honduras is a major source of immigrant children and has faced a breakdown of social order over the last two decades. The main cities where children have sought to flee from Honduras are Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

Analysts say that organized crime groups in the cities remain strong and authorities who attempt to disrupt their activities are often killed. Government corruption in Honduras is said to be endemic.

Additionally, Mexico’s efforts to try and stem drug-related crime have prompted the retreat of some Mexican cartels further south. That has added to the human trafficking problem.

Criminals in the region and in the United States have exploited the idea that unaccompanied children who reach the U.S. border will not be turned back, based on a 2008 law.

President Barack Obama on Friday called the immigration problems "a short-term crisis with respect to the Rio Grande Valley," and he criticized House Republicans for not passing legislation to provide $3.7 billion in additional funds for border controls and security.

"I’m going to have to act alone because we don’t have enough resources," Obama told reporters. "We’ve run out of money, and we are going to have to reallocate resources in order to just make sure that some of the basic functions that have to take place down there, whether it’s making sure that these children are properly housed or making sure that we’ve got enough immigration judges to process their cases—that those things get done."

The administration announced it will shut down three shelters for the children on military bases in Oklahoma, Texas, and California, the Washington Times reported Monday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said on Sunday that the crisis caused by the mass migration of Central American children would require deportations.

"These children eventually will have to return—most of them, anyways—to their country, because otherwise you are encouraging more people to undertake that very dangerous journey," Rubio said on Fox News Channel.

Rubio said criminal groups are using "ambiguities" that need to be changed in U.S. law—including a 2008 statute aimed at curbing human trafficking—to encourage illegal immigration.

In Central America, the main criminal human trafficking groups, including drug cartels, are making large sums of money from the current child immigrant influx, the officials said.

Another problem in dealing with the crisis is the fact that the countries in the region receive billions in payments from U.S. illegal immigrants and legal residents who send money from the United States to their countries of origin.

It is estimated that $12 billion is sent annually from both illegal and legal U.S. residents to Central America each year, a significant percentage of the region’s economy.

According to U.S. officials, Guatemala receives up to $4 billion annually from U.S.-based illegal immigrants and residents. The money is so crucial to the local economy the government there has a stake in continuing illegal immigration into the United States, officials said.

One Guatemalan city near the border with Mexico, Huehuetenango, is said to be highly dependent on funds provided by illegal immigrants that reach the United States and send money back.

Additionally, in two locations in Guatemala—Totonicapán in the southwestern part of the country, and Santa Rosa province in the southern part—criminals are said to be involved in scams that have caused people to mortgage their property in order to gain the $6,000 to $8,000 charged by human smuggling networks for sending their unaccompanied children into the United States.

Officials also said that contrary to widespread U.S. news media reports and statements by pro-immigration advocates, crime and violence in Central America and specifically Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, is not the major cause of the influx of illegal children.

Violence in Central America, while prevalent in the region, has not changed significantly in the past few years.

The main reason for the immigration flow is to escape poverty and find jobs, the officials said.

Additionally, it is not clear the influx of Central American children is the result of deportations that have caused the separation of families between illegals who settled in the United States and their family members who were caught trying to enter illegally and deported.

According to the officials, many of the illegal immigrants arriving at the border have few ties to relatives in the United States.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said July 24 that he believes the surge in child immigration has declined since early June.

"It’s been going back down, but it could spike back up again at any moment, and so we've surged resources," Johnson said at a security conference in Colorado.

Johnson said smugglers have recognized a "market-sensitive phenomenon" that is being exploited by traffickers who tell potential immigrant parents that if a child is declared "unaccompanied," the Border Patrol is required to turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.

"The smuggling organizations are putting out a lot of misinformation to stoke this and encourage this further," Johnson said. "So they're putting out, through word of mouth, through direct recruiting, that there are these permisos, free passes, that your kid will get if he or she makes it into the United States, that are going to expire at the end of June or the end of July."

In one case, smugglers threatened to decapitate one girl, or sell her into a brothel, unless her family paid a second installment before she was released, he said.

Johnson said the administration has sought to dissuade further child immigrants by reducing the time it takes to send adult illegal immigrants back from what was 33 days to four days.

But the problems surrounding the immigration of unaccompanied children have not been resolved, he said.

Human smugglers in the United States, especially in areas with high concentrations of Guatemalans, also have been seeking to bring in more children in. Officials said Guatemalan smugglers have collected money for such additional child importations.

Few efforts have been taken by U.S. law enforcement agencies to disrupt the trafficking networks here.

The governments of the regions also have had mixed results in trying to counter the disinformation of crime groups and human smugglers about the easy access to the United States.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera, for example, sent a mixed message during a recent press conference when he stated that the United States had suspended deportations "temporarily." The comment was widely interpreted in the region as an indication that the thousands of illegals now in detention in the Southwest will not be deported.

Under pressure from Obama administration officials, some efforts by regional governments were made to alert people to the dangers of travel to the United States, including reports of children that were killed or died making the journey. In one case, a 15-year-old Central American girl who reached U.S. soil was pregnant as a result of a rape during the journey through Mexico.

The officials said the living conditions for immigrant children who are allowed to live with relatives in the United States also are unhealthy.

The Department of Health and Human Services has placed many of the thousands of detained minors into private shelters.

However, many of the young immigrants who were released to relatives in the United States are living in overcrowded apartments with siblings and children are sharing sleeping areas with strangers, the officials said.

Heritage Foundation analyst David Inserra said funding alone will not solve the child immigrant crisis.

"Even more effective and less expensive would be rescinding anti-enforcement policies that are drawing illegal immigrants to the U.S.," he stated. "The administration’s broad use of discretion to not enforce immigration laws against millions of unlawful immigrants, most clearly seen in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, has only created an incentive for more illegal immigration, making border security and enforcement efforts more difficult."

Inserra added: "Simply rescinding such policies and fully using existing immigration authorities to enforce the law would be a critical step in the right direction."