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Friday, October 7, 2022

Coyotes, US Immigration Misinformation Still Major Factor for Central America Migration, GAO Says

This week Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, issued a statement saying a new audit report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “confirm[ed] that endemic violence and economic distress in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Northern Triangle – are driving factors that compel children and parents to make a desperate decision and flee to the United States.”

But GAO’s audit report indicated the principal reason for the Central American exodus to the US “was likely triggered, according to US officials, by several emergent factors such as the increased presence and sophistication of human smugglers (known as coyotes) and confusion over US immigration policy.”

GAO reiterated in its report that, “Agency officials noted that a variety of factors likely caused the recent rapid increase in UAC migration, including the increased presence of coyotes, perceptions concerning US immigration law and recent improvements in the US economy.”

“All agency officials we spoke with … identified several emergent factors as likely triggering the rapid increase in migration, including the growing presence of coyotes as one of the top factors,” GAO reported. “Agency officials … we spoke to said that coyotes had proliferated and grown more influential and sophisticated in recent years. Officials from USAID and [the] State [Department] … noted that coyotes were often well known and trusted in communities,” and that, “According to USAID officials, when they conducted focus group interviews in Honduras with youth and outreach center coordinators in high-risk communities, including San Pedro Sula, participants noted that coyotes were easy to access.”

“In addition,” GAO stated “agency officials we spoke to … noted that coyotes had instituted new marketing and messaging tactics. For example, numerous officials … told us that coyotes offered package deals, such as offering three attempts to migrate to the United States for one fee—known as a ‘threefor-one’ deal. Coyotes have also intentionally spread rumors and misinformation about US immigration policy. For example, agency officials told us that, in some cases, in an effort to drive smuggling business, coyotes led many people to believe children could migrate to the United States and receive permission to stay indefinitely, if they arrived by a certain date.”

GAO said it also was told by officials that “general perceptions concerning US immigration policy have played a growing role in UAC migration. Agency officials noted they relied on outreach efforts, focus groups and other information sources to try to understand this factor. According to State [Department] officials in El Salvador and Guatemala, local media outlets have optimistically discussed comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the United States and sometimes failed to discuss the complexity of immigration reform. According to State [Department] officials, many Guatemalan citizens believe undocumented migrants in the United States will be encouraged to send for their children from Guatemala so they can come to the United States and they can benefit together for any upcoming comprehensive immigration reform, or even be eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.”

“In addition, according to USAID officials,” GAO reported, “Honduran youth and coordinators of community centers who were interviewed as part of a USAID focus group indicated they believed the United States would allow migrant minors, mothers traveling with minors and pregnant women to stay for a period of time upon arrival in the United States.”

Continuing, GAO reported, “Agency officials also noted that recent improvements in the US economy had fueled increased UAC migration, enabling family reunification in the United States. In particular, [the] State [Department] and USAID officials in Honduras noted that the improving economy had enabled parents who immigrated to the United States to send money back to their home country to pay coyotes so their children could migrate and reunify the family in the United States.”

While GAO acknowledged that “agency officials noted that some pervasive problems have recently intensified in some places, including rising levels of violence and insecurity and worsening economic and social conditions,” it noted there were “other conditions … identified as contributing to migration,” especially “the rapid increase in UAC migration due to several emergent factors, including the proliferation of human smugglers, or coyotes.”

These conclusions were earlier echoed in the July 7, 2014 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) intelligence assessment, Misperceptions of US Policy Key Driver in Central American Migrant Surge, that concluded the surge of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and families into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas had much more to do with human traffickers promoting false information that anyone south of the US border who could get to the US would be allowed to stay.

Homeland Security Today first reported in 2011 that the Rio Grande Valley region in Texas was fast becoming the entry point for “Other Than Mexicans” and “Special Interest Aliens” — persons from countries that harbor or support terrorists or where there is a significant terrorist presence.

The EPIC intelligence assessment stated the “significant increase” in illegal aliens from Central America arriving at the US border – primarily in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas – “since mid-2013 is most likely driven by traditional migration factors exacerbated by misperceptions of recent US immigration policies among migrants.”

The “flow to the border will remain elevated until migrants’ misperceptions about US immigration benefits are changed,” said the report, which was prepared by EPIC’s Criminal Threats Unit, Strategic Analysis Section.

The EPIC report also highlighted that, “These misperceptions are likely fueled by human smugglers and Central American media — providing deliberate, errant or unwitting reporting to migrants on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum and comprehensive US immigration reform.”

The latest GAO audit added that, “Some agency officials also noted that the increased use of social media has enabled migrating families to be in more regular contact and to confirm if and when family members or friends arrive in the United States.”

“Additionally, according to a study performed by State [Department] contractors in El Salvador, many people advertise immigration services through social media and offer travel services to ensure safe arrival in the United States,” GAO found.

Consequently, GAO stated, “The use of social media can encourage migration, according to some agency officials. For example, officials in Guatemala noted that social media outlets enable migrants who have arrived in the United States to share messages and pictures with families in their home countries, an act that can serve as a powerful and influential endorsement of the decision to migrate. Agency officials in El Salvador similarly noted that when a potential migrant hears from someone in the United States who has managed to arrive and remain there undocumented, the communication can strongly influence their decision on whether tomigrate.”

While “US agencies have sought to address causes of unaccompanied alien child migration through recent programs, such as information campaigns to deter migration, developed in response to the migration increase and other longstanding efforts,” and that, “Most agencies have developed processes to assess the effectiveness of programs seeking to address UAC migration … weaknesses exist in these processes for some anti-smuggling programs. For example, [the] Department of Homeland Security [DHS] has established performance measures, such as arrests, for units combating UAC smuggling, but has not established numeric or other types of targets for these measures which would enable DHS to measure the units’ progress.”

“In addition,” GAO found, “DHS and [the] State [Department] have not always evaluated information campaigns intended to combat coyote misinformation,” noting that, “DHS launched its 2013 campaign in April, but launched its 2014 campaign in late June after migration levels peaked. Neither agency evaluated its 2014 campaign. Collecting performance information on media campaigns can have value ininforming future campaign efforts to reduce child migration.”

Carper said in a statement that, the GAO "report confirms that endemic violence and economic distress in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Northern Triangle – are driving factors that compel children and parents to make a desperate decision and flee to the United States," adding that the "report outlines a number of federal initiatives aimed at alleviating the root causes of this migration, such as efforts to crack down on smugglers, violence reduction programs and job training for at-risk youths."

"It’s encouraging," Carper said, "that many of these programs hold promise and are being targeted in new ways to deter migration. While we’re seeing progress, we need to do more to strengthen our efforts in the region and develop better metrics to measure what works best. This includes the ‘truth campaigns’ that warn would-be migrants about the dangers of the trek to the United States."

Carper also said the GAO’s findings underscored "the need for Congress to support the administration’s request to devote more resources to Central America to address the hopelessness, violence and lack of economic opportunity that are unfortunately all too common in communities in the Northern Triangle."

"While I strongly support the administration’s request," he stated, "addressing the root causes in Central America cannot rest solely on our nation’s shoulders. It is a shared responsibility among the United States, the governments of the Northern Triangle, and other partners in the region. Change in these nations won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, but we do have a moral and fiscal obligation to help our neighbors in the Northern Triangle. If we work together, progress can be made.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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