A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the "rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) apprehended at the US-Mexican border" from Central America was triggered primarily by crime, violence and economic distress, contrasts substantively with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) El Paso Intelligence Center’s (EPIC) July 7, 2014 intelligence assessment, Misperceptions of US Policy Key Driver in Central American Migrant Surge.The EPIC assessment stated the surge of UACs and families into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley that began in 2012 had much more to do with human traffickers promoting false information that anyone who could get to the US would be allowed to stay.
Homeland Security Today first reported in 2011 that the Rio Grande Valley was fast becoming the entry point for “Other Than Mexicans” (OTMS) 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.”
On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced a long expected series of executive orders to crack down on illegal immigration at the border, prioritize deporting felons not families, and require an estimated four million – but likely many, many more — currently illegal immigrants to pass a criminal background check before being given work permits, Social Security numbers and required to pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the US without fear of deportation.
Not surprisingly, as Homeland Security Today reported in November, praise and scorn over Obama’s unprecedented fiat split party lines, although a few bold Democrats sided with Republicans in excoriating Obama’s action, which they said usurped the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, and which has had constitutional scholars debating the legality of the President’s action, which, in all likelihood, will eventually be settled by the Supreme Court — never mind Obama repeatedly stated he didn’t have the constitutional authority to do what he did.
A path to the Supreme Court settling the matter was opened up on February 16 when Texas US District Brownsville Division federal Judge Andrew S. Hanen issued a preliminary injunction to temporarily prevent the federal government from implementing the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) and the expanded DACA programs in response to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the executive orders. The judge ruled the administration does not have the power “to give 4.3 million removable aliens what the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] itself labels as ‘legal presence.’ In fact, the law mandates that these illegally-present individuals be removed.”
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that pending an appeal, DHS “will not begin accepting requests for the expansion of DACA … as originally planned … Until further notice, we will also suspend the plan to accept requests for DAPA.”
Consequently, US Customs and Immigration Services said it will not begin accepting requests for the expansion of DACA on February 18 as originally planned, but noted that the court’s temporary injunction does not affect the existing DACA, and therefore individuals may continue to come forward and request an initial grant of DACA or renewal of DACA under the guidelines established in 2012.
Obama’s admittedly controversial executive orders were at the heart of the recent political tug of war between Democrats and Republicans over funding DHS through the balance of this fiscal year. With an earlier sort term continuing resolution funding DHS that ended last Friday night, and it clear the Senate wasn’t going to pass the House DHS funding bill with amendments defunding Obama’s DACA program and other executive orders related to immigration which some of the more ultra-right wing members of the House wanted kept intact in the House funding bill because they believe they’re unconstitutional, House Speaker John Boehner caved in to rally enough support – mostly Democrats — in the House to pass a so-called “clean” DHS budget bill stripped of the amendments.
Despite EPIC’s intelligence findings, the new GAO report stated,” Department of State, US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Department of Homeland Security officials stationed in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras most commonly identified crime and violence and economic concerns as causes primarily responsible for the recent rapid increase in migration to the United States by unaccompanied alien children.”
“These causes were followed by educational concerns, the desire for family reunification and the role of smuggling networks, among others,” GAO reported, noting that, “Agency officials’ responses to a GAO set of questions showed little variance in attributing causes of UAC migration by country. The officials reported drawing on various sources of information to identify these causes, including conducting first-hand interviews with migrants and their families; meeting with host government and non-governmental agencies; and analyzing various data, reports and other information sources. For example, the State and USAID officials’ responses for Honduras noted that the agencies had identified causes through a combination of surveys, discussions with government agencies and civil society organizations, anecdotal reports and others.”
The GAO investigation was originally requested last year following a congressional hearing that examined and addressed the root causes behind the rise in apprehensions at the southern border and a roundtable with key stakeholders across the US government, multilateral investment banks and non-governmental organizations on what the US government and its partners were doing to improve the prospects for citizens of these countries, to identify programs that may be the most effective and to highlight what actions can be taken.”
While GAO cited “crime and violence and economic concerns as causes primarily responsible for the rapid increase in UAC migration to the United States, followed by educational concerns, the desire for family reunification,” it also noted “the role of smuggling networks [and] family dysfunction and migrants’ perceptions of US immigration policy were among other causes the agency officials identified. A State official noted that individual migrants are likely to be driven to migrate by a mixture of these causes. The responses showed little variance in attributing the causes of migration by country. Agency officials reported drawing on various sources of information to identify these causes, ranging from conducting first-hand interviews to analyzing various statistical data.”
The EPIC report, on the other hand, stated that, “These misperceptions [of US immigration policy] 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.”
“In late May,” EPIC analysts said, “the US Border Patrol interviewed unaccompanied alien children and migrant families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley,” and “of the 230 total migrants interviewed, 219 cited the primary reason for migrating to the United States was the perception of US immigration laws granting free passes or permisos to UAC and adult female Other Than Mexicans [OTMs] traveling with minors.”
“Permisos” are the Notice to Appear documents issued to undocumented aliens when they are released on their own recognizance, pending a hearing before a US immigration judge.
“Migrants indicated that knowledge of permisos was widespread across Central America due to word of mouth, local and international media messaging—prompting many to depart for the United States within 30 days of becoming aware of these perceived benefits, according to the same reporting,” the EPIC intelligence assessment said.
Continuing, the EPIC report said, “Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also note[d] that a large number of migrants interviewed claimed family members in the United States encouraged their travel because the US government would cease issuing permisos after June 2014. Migrants cited Univision, Primer Impacto, Al Rojo Vivo and several Honduran television news outlets for helping shape their perception of US immigration policy.”
According to CBP officials who spoke to Homeland Security Today on background, “many” OTMs were taken into custody after May 2014 who’d been interviewed at length by Border Patrol agents had “continued to cite misperceptions about our immigration laws,” as one of the officials said. “As recent as this week [mid-July 2014], kids and kids accompanied by their mothers indicated to us that this misperception is still widespread throughout Central America — that the word hasn’t gotten back home yet,” another Border Patrol agent said.
DHS and DEA intelligence sources told Homeland Security Today that Mexico-based transnational criminal organizations running most of the human smuggling networks to the US perpetuated misperceptions about US immigrations laws “because they’re making millions” from “running OTMs to the US border,” an official said.
EPIC said it “judges that alien smuggling organizations and individual smugglers are likely responsible for perpetuating rumors encouraging the Central American migration surge to increase their financial gain. Honduran and Guatemalan immigration officials attribute the UAC surge to alien smugglers, or coyotes preying on mothers and children by motivating them with false US amnesty or asylum rumors, according to Costa Rican press reporting.”
Disturbingly, EPIC said it also “lacks robust law enforcement reporting on alien smuggling networks, drug trafficking organizations and transnational criminal organizations involvement in UAC and accompanied minor smuggling operations.”
EPIC said Border Patrol officials reported the majorityof migrants interviewed in late May 2014 indicated they made arrangements with smugglers in their respective countries through the assistance of family members and friends in the United States.
“A majority of migrants interviewedalso noted they’d encountered family units, consisting of a mother and child under the age of 18 during their journey to the United States, and that the families had indicated they planned to surrender to US authorities because they were informed that they would likely be released,” the EPIC report stated. “According to a body of US and International press reporting, coyotes have dispensed misinformation to convince migrants that they have a clear path to US citizenship if they make it into the United States.”
The EPIC report said homicide rates in Central America suggest violence is compounding the surge, but that it isn’t likely the primary reason, contrary to claims that have been made by the Obama administration and largely Democratic lawmakers.
“EPIC assesses homicide trends and migrant interviews suggest violence is likely not the principal factor driving the increase in UAC migration,” the report stated, noting that, “While CBP data from early fiscal year 2011 indicates a steady increase in OTM and UAC migration, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime statistics — within this same timeframe — show a decline in per capita homicide rates in these three countries; El Salvador saw the sharpest decline, followed by Honduras and Guatemala, respectively.”
“We further judge that this process could take the remainder of 2014 given the time needed for bi-lateral coordination efforts — such as information and enforcement campaigns in Mexico and Central America — to take hold,” the strategic assessment said. “Nonetheless, traditional underlying immigration factors, such as family reunification and poor socioeconomic conditions, will continue to drive alien flow — including minors — from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.”
Nevertheless, Carper’s office said GAO’s survey of “US officials working in the region to determine the cause of the migration … confirmed that violence, insecurity and poverty are the key factors that propel unaccompanied minors in these countries to leave their homes and embark on the dangerous journey to the US. Additional factors included educational concerns, family reunification and the role of smugglers.”
Carper said the GAO “report underscores that endemic violence and economic distress in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Northern Triangle –are driving children and parents to make a desperate decision and flee to the United States. Faced with hopelessness at home, thousands of children and families from these countries risk their lives on a nearly 1,500 mile journey to the United States. The facts laid out in this report underline the critical need to address the root causes of migration from Central American. In order to prevent this phenomenon from continuing, we need to help those countries and their leaders overcome those circumstances that are pushing so many of their young people and families to flee.”
Carper’s office said the report accentuated the need to address the root causes of migration from Central America and the importance of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion aid package to help these Northern Triangle countries improve security and opportunity for their citizens.
“Fortunately, this administration has said that it is committed to addressing the root causes of hopelessness, violence and lack of economic opportunity in the Northern Triangle that compel so many desperate families and children to make the dangerous journey to the United States,” Carper continued.
“While this proposed funding is not a silver bullet,” Carper said, “I hope it lays the foundation for a sustained focus on – and investment in – the region by the United States and our partners. These efforts should not rest solely on our nation’sshoulders. It is a shared responsibility among the United States, the governments of the Northern Triangle, other Central American nations and other partners in the region. Change in these nations won’t happen overnight, and it won’tbe easy, but we do have a moral and fiscal obligation to help our neighbors in the Northern Triangle, and if we work together, progress can be made.”
Despite the stay on the administration’s executive orders, DHS sources expressed to Homeland Security Today on background that persistent misinformation in Central America could still exacerbate the problem in the coming year. DHS Secretary Johnson said the US would likely experience another wave in illegal immigration. “I’m concerned about the possibility of another rise in illegal migration,” Johnson said in a speech at the National Press Club.
DHS officials who spoke to Homeland Security Today agreed, with more than a few saying the next surge could be worse than during the 2013-2014 exodus to the US.
Editor’s note: Also read the Homeland Security Today report, The Leaky Sieve. Why the Rio Grande Valley is Flooded with Migrants, by Dr. James Phelp.