Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan stressed that “development of a regional approach to migration is among the most pressing U.S. national security interests in the Western Hemisphere,” as well as “one of the most fundamental challenges for the region writ large.”
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, McAleenan said he assumed his current role “at the height of this crisis” and “lacked effective tools to counter the smugglers bringing unprecedented flows of migrants crossing our border, and we lacked funding from Congress to promptly alleviate the humanitarian crisis.”
“Today, I am pleased to report that daily arrivals are down 64 percent from the peak in May, and total enforcement actions for Central Americans arriving at the border have been reduced by over 70 percent,” he said. “And, critically, we have dramatically improved the conditions and care in border facilities.”
And as of this week, he added, “with some humanitarian and medical exceptions, DHS will no longer be releasing family units from Border Patrol stations into the interior.”
“This means that for family units, the largest demographic by volume arriving at the border this year, the court-mandated practice of catch-and-release due to the inability of DHS to complete immigration proceedings with families detained together in custody, will have been mitigated. This is a vital step in restoring the rule of law and integrity to our immigration system.”
McAleenan stressed that remaining at the core of migration are “push factors” that are “predicated on a stark economic opportunity gap, exacerbated by poverty and food insecurity, with continued high-levels of violence in some areas of Central America.”
“Job creation has not been able to keep up with labor growth in Central America resulting in a stark opportunity shortage — with only one-fifth of the needed jobs being created every year for the number of young people entering the workforce in the Northern Triangle. This is the single most important push factor,” he said. “Poverty and food insecurity are also key contributors. Sixty-four percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line with rural poverty being more severe and 63 percent of Central American migrants cite lack of food as a primary incentive for migration according to the UN World Food Program.”
“Over the past decade, transnational criminal organizations have used the Central American corridor for a range of illicit activities, including trafficking a significant percentage of cocaine bound for the United States. As a result, while the security situation is improving in all three countries, the region has experienced elevated homicide rates and general crime committed by drug traffickers, gangs, and other criminal groups,” he added. “Combined, these factors have created conditions that push many to make the dangerous trek north.”
Coupled with that, McAleenan continued, “the strength of the U.S. economy, with historically low levels of unemployment, and the presence of significant diasporas of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans with resources are strong magnets.”
“But the main cause of the increases in arrivals this year is the weakness in the U.S. immigration system, the vulnerabilities of our legal framework, which allowed migrants — especially families and unaccompanied children — to stay in the US for months or years, even though the vast majority will not ultimately receive legal status,” he said. “That is why, by the end of the fiscal year, we will see numbers more than triple the record for family units arriving at the border, with close to 600,000, and record number of unaccompanied minors.”
McAleenan said the “strategy sought to change the dynamic at the border” consists of “disrupting smuggling activity and reducing the unprecedented flow,” “changing the way we process that flow to create greater integrity in the system by achieving immigration results that can be effectuated at the border without release into the United States,” and trying to “urgently mitigate the humanitarian situation by providing enhanced care for arriving migrants once they crossed into the United States.”
He called the Migrant Protection Protocols, making Central American migrants stay in Mexico until their U.S. hearings, “perhaps the most visible program resulting from our energized international efforts.”
“Under MPP, we have successfully provided protections to hundreds of asylum seekers—including those unique asylees to whom protection is provided immediately, if it is deemed too dangerous from fear screenings to return them to Mexico, as well as several who were found by immigration judges to have meritorious claims at the end of the expedited process in the only the first several months of operation,” McAleenan said.
DHS is also expanding its Electronic Nationality Verification program “to return migrants without any claim of fear to their countries of origin in an expedited manner, by verifying their nationality electronically,” he added.
“We are still at crisis levels in illegal crossings at the southwest border, and until we change the fundamental laws governing our immigration system, we won’t solve the underlying problem,” the acting secretary said.