As Kerlikowske told lawmakers last month, his agency has simply been trying to “keep our heads above water” and “to get the Border Patrol agents back doing their work on the border and not essentially baby-sitting a lot of children that they really don’t have either the facilities or oftentimes the support that they need to do this.”
Stemming the Tide
On the ground in Texas, it seems like the flow of unaccompanied minors is bound to increase only further, says Daniel Tirado, a public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector. “Obviously the word is getting back to their country that they’re being released,” Tirado says. “Because of that, I’m pretty sure that once they get that word, more are going to come.”
While the United States has agreements with Mexico and Canada to return illegal immigrants from those countries to their governments within 24 hours, there is no such understanding with Central American nations. So the droves of children crossing the border from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are released to family in the United States or kept in foster or group homes.
Zack Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, says the flow of unaccompanied minors won’t wane until the United States stops letting the kids stick around.
“They need to put them on a C-130 and take them back to their country. They need to demonstrate that they’re going to enforce the law. Until they do that, they’re going to keep coming. It’s that simple,” says Taylor, who worked for Border Patrol for 26 years in the Rio Grande Valley and Nogales, Ariz. “Because those people that have come here and successfully circumvented our laws by the application of policy, they call back to the home country and say, ‘Hey, this is how we got here. This is what we did.’ ”
Carl Meacham, who for more than a decade served as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide for former Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, says the rush of children trying to enter the United States should not be blamed only on deportation policies or even on trouble in Central America, but on the confluence of those factors, coupled with ambiguity in federal immigration laws.
“I think it’s a combination of this lax enforcement and the economic benefits of coming to the U.S.,” says Meacham, who now directs the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It highlights that there is a need for us to deal with this and to have an immigration reform built out by Congress.”
Lawmakers in both chambers and in both parties have said enactment of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws would help control the influx of unaccompanied minors.
“I think that’s why we have to have laws in place, we need to enforce the laws, and we now have another argument for why we need to solve this problem,” says South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. “We have all these sort of discrete issues that come up.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain says federal officials are exploiting humanitarian loopholes in immigration policy and asylum laws to allow Central American children to enter and remain in the United States.