Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

Posts tagged Migration

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Are unaccompanied minors fleeing violence, or just poverty, in Central America?

“Most immigrants from Central America who are crossing illegally into the United States are driven by economic reasons, not fear of physical danger in their homeland.”

—Views of Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), who visited Guatemala and Honduras in July, as reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The Facts:

Crippling poverty and lack of economic opportunity are undeniably important push factors driving children as young as five to flee their Central American homes, and head to the United States border. Nonetheless, the most commonly cited reason for the recent surge of unaccompanied minors migrating to the U.S. is violence, especially gang violence at the local and community levels. Much of this violence is directed at young people, many of them of gang-recruitment age. By several accounts, it has worsened in the past few years, coinciding with the current wave of unaccompanied child migration.

1. Numerous mainstream media reports have been documenting the increased violence as a factor inducing young Central Americans to flee. A few examples:

  • In the July 9 New York Times, Frances Robles reported from the La Pradera neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where seven children were murdered in April alone. “The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,” a terrified mother of two in La Pradera told Robles.
  • In the July 9 Washington Post, Terrence McCoy profiled an anonymous girl who fled El Salvador because she feared sexual violence at the hands of gang members. She explained that a local gang member had decided that he “liked” her, which ultimately put her at risk for “sexualized killing,” something that has become all too common in the region. “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” she explained the United Nations refugee agency that has been helping her.
  • In a July 11 New York Times op-ed, author Sonia Nazario explained the correlation between the violence raging in Central America and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States. She profiled several young children who stated that fear of gangs and localized violence were their primary reasons for coming to the United States. Milagro Noemi Martínez, a Honduran teenager who attempted the journey north last year, explained how grave the violence is in Honduras. “Here there is only evil … It’s better to leave than have them kill me here,” she said. Now she says she is ready to try the journey again because the violence has not improved, stating that “I hope God protects me. I am afraid to step outside.”
  • In the July 13 Washington Post, Pamela Constable profiled Allis Godoy, a Honduran mother living in Washington, D.C. “In the past two years, reports of gang violence have skyrocketed in Godoy’s homeland, where the per capita murder rate is one of the highest in the world,” Constable reports. “The growing danger made her determined to bring Madison to the United States before she reached adolescence and became a target for gangs and other predators.”
  • In the July 15 Washington Post, Joshua Partlow reported on why Honduran children migrate to the United States. The primary reason that he observed was violence. Alvin Rolando Baide, a resident of the Chamelecon neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, explained to Partlow that “They [the two main gangs, 18th Street and MS-13] bleed you … They demand 80 or 90 percent of your salary … They go from house to house and threaten the residents. You have to pay them or you have a limited amount of time before they’ll occupy your house.”

2. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind.

The homicide rates in these three countries support the many reasons parents and children cite for coming to the United States in such large recent numbers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2013 Global Study on Homicide, Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. El Salvador has the fifth highest homicide rate of 41.2 per 100,000 people, and Guatemala has the sixth highest at 39.9 per 100,000 people.

The map below, prepared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in May [PDF], shows the towns of origin of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border during the first 4 ½ months of 2014. With the exception of the relatively peaceful Guatemalan highlands, the principal communities from where migrants leave are those suffering some of the worst of the violence. “Salvadoran and Honduran children,” the CBP document concludes, “come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home.”

3. Many Central American children coming to the United States might qualify for asylum or protection based on violence they have suffered, or face a credible threat of suffering, in their home countries.

According to a recent report by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees [PDF], 72 percent of unaccompanied migrant children the agency surveyed from El Salvador, 38 percent from Guatemala, and 57 percent from Honduras have potential international protection needs. This means that, upon further evaluation, there is some likelihood that they might qualify for asylum or some other protected status in the United States or third countries. Indeed, in the United States, “64.7 percent of the unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum this year got it,” according to a U.S. government document obtained by the New York Times.

It is abundantly clear that many unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence in their countries and seeking safety and protection in the United States. To claim that fear and violence play an insignificant or secondary role in the crisis, or that the unaccompanied children coming this year are mainly economic migrants, is at odds with the facts.

—Lesley Wellener

Filed under Central America Migration

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Are drugs the main “root cause” of the violence that has increased Central American migration?


  "There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is."


—Gen. John Kelly, commander, U.S. Southern Command, article in Military Times, July 8, 2014.

Gen. Kelly and some other prominent policymakers, most recently Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), view the drug trade as the chief “root cause” of the violence pushing tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children to the United States. “The drug lords have completely taken over those countries,” Sen. Nelson said last week. “As a result, the violence is the highest. Honduras is the murder capital now of the world.”

From this, they conclude that the best way to stop the exodus of migrants is to aid Central American police and military forces and interdict more tons of U.S.-bound drugs.

The Facts:

These statements conflate two kinds of criminality that are neither allied nor have the same effect on the communities that migrants are fleeing. The groups moving tons of drugs through Central America are certainly violent, but the bloodshed sending most children and families to the U.S. border is mainly the work of street gangs that don’t manage large drug shipments.

The street gangs, or maras, get the most media attention, and are generating more violence. Groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, along with many smaller structures, are carrying out a large share of the extortion, murder, rape, forced recruitment, and other high-profile crimes against the populations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The larger groups originated in the United States in the 1980s, particularly among the Central American migrant community in Los Angeles.

Maras sell drugs within the areas they control. But little evidence indicates that they engage significantly in international cocaine transshipment.

Some of the most thorough work on gangs’ drug-trafficking activity has been done by Steven Dudley of the crime-monitoring group InsightCrime. In a 2010 investigation published by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the University of San Diego [PDF], Dudley found some variation across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but on the whole found almost no street-gang involvement in international drug transshipment. “There is no evidence the Guatemala-based maras have any organic connection with the DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] in that country,” he found, while in Honduras drug traffickers mainly employ them as assassins against rivals. In El Salvador, Dudley cited a seven-kilogram seizure as evidence that the gangs may be trying to involve themselves more deeply in transshipment. “Seven kilos is very small, but police intelligence said it was much higher than what maras are used to managing,” he observed.

The large international shipments—involving hundreds of kilograms or even tons of cocaine—are handled not by gangs, but by lower-profile criminal groups or “cartels,” who usually obtain cocaine from Colombia and hand it off to Mexican organizations. These groups include Los Cachiros in Honduras, El Salvador’s Perrones and Texistepeque Cartel, and, in Guatemala, families with last names like Lorenzana, Overdick, León, and Mendoza. It is they, not the street gangs, who are sending tons of drugs to the United States.

Many readers may have heard of MS-13 and Barrio 18, but may not be familiar with these cartels’ names. That is because they are businesses that deliberately seek a lower profile. They prefer not to generate violence and the attention that comes with it—and when they do, it is usually directed at criminal competitors, not at the general population. Their default mode of operation is to corrupt politicians, security forces, and justice systems, rather than confront them. They maintain strong ties within Central American militaries and police. As Gen. Kelly correctly states in the Military Times article published in early July, this institutional rot and erosion is the main damage that cartels have done to Central American governments’ ability to protect their own people.

The desire to quietly move their illegal product means that the cartels mostly leave the general population alone. Instead, Central Americans are leaving because of community level violence, much of it from the gangs.

MS-13, Barrio 18, and others are much “poorer” criminal organizations than the cartels. Because they do not move tons of drugs to the United States, they make most of their money within the territories they control. Their main income streams are small-scale retail neighborhood drug dealing (narcomenudeo), extortion, robbery, contraband sales, prostitution and human trafficking, and kidnapping.

The gangs operate with a savagery that directly impacts the general population. It is they, not the cartels, who are extorting even the smallest informal businesses. It is they who are recruiting young people and forcing girls into prostitution. And it is they who are committing a larger share of homicides, many notorious for their brutality, in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries.

This is not to let the cartels off the hook; they generate some violence too. Central American governments badly need to dismantle the trafficking organizations that have done so much damage to their institutions, and the most promising way to do that is through evidence-based investigations, witness protection, systematic punishment of state corruption, and a functioning justice system.

But even if Central America’s cartels could be weakened, it is not clear what effect it would have on community-level, gang-related violence. A strategy that attacks one may have little effect on the other.

As with cartels, confronting the community-level violence displacing Central Americans will require sophisticated investigations, witness protection, anti-corruption measures, and more effective justice. It will also require police forces that understand, and have earned the trust of, communities. These steps must come with investments in education, job creation, and neighborhood livability to reduce the huge percentage of young Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans who are neither working nor studying today.

If the goal is to stop the violence forcing so many Central Americans to migrate northward, the best intermediate measures of success include public opinion of police, response times to crimes, judicial clearance of cases especially against gang leadership, and changes in school attendance and youth unemployment. The number of tons of seized U.S.-bound cocaine affects the cartels more than the gangs, and is thus less central to curbing community-level violence.

—Adam Isacson

Are drugs the main “root cause” of the violence that has increased Central American migration?

"There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is."

—Gen. John Kelly, commander, U.S. Southern Command, article in Military Times, July 8, 2014.

Gen. Kelly and some other prominent policymakers, most recently Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), view the drug trade as the chief “root cause” of the violence pushing tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children to the United States. “The drug lords have completely taken over those countries,” Sen. Nelson said last week. “As a result, the violence is the highest. Honduras is the murder capital now of the world.”

From this, they conclude that the best way to stop the exodus of migrants is to aid Central American police and military forces and interdict more tons of U.S.-bound drugs.

The Facts:

These statements conflate two kinds of criminality that are neither allied nor have the same effect on the communities that migrants are fleeing. The groups moving tons of drugs through Central America are certainly violent, but the bloodshed sending most children and families to the U.S. border is mainly the work of street gangs that don’t manage large drug shipments.

The street gangs, or maras, get the most media attention, and are generating more violence. Groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, along with many smaller structures, are carrying out a large share of the extortion, murder, rape, forced recruitment, and other high-profile crimes against the populations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The larger groups originated in the United States in the 1980s, particularly among the Central American migrant community in Los Angeles.

Maras sell drugs within the areas they control. But little evidence indicates that they engage significantly in international cocaine transshipment.

Some of the most thorough work on gangs’ drug-trafficking activity has been done by Steven Dudley of the crime-monitoring group InsightCrime. In a 2010 investigation published by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the University of San Diego [PDF], Dudley found some variation across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but on the whole found almost no street-gang involvement in international drug transshipment. “There is no evidence the Guatemala-based maras have any organic connection with the DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] in that country,” he found, while in Honduras drug traffickers mainly employ them as assassins against rivals. In El Salvador, Dudley cited a seven-kilogram seizure as evidence that the gangs may be trying to involve themselves more deeply in transshipment. “Seven kilos is very small, but police intelligence said it was much higher than what maras are used to managing,” he observed.

The large international shipments—involving hundreds of kilograms or even tons of cocaine—are handled not by gangs, but by lower-profile criminal groups or “cartels,” who usually obtain cocaine from Colombia and hand it off to Mexican organizations. These groups include Los Cachiros in Honduras, El Salvador’s Perrones and Texistepeque Cartel, and, in Guatemala, families with last names like Lorenzana, Overdick, León, and Mendoza. It is they, not the street gangs, who are sending tons of drugs to the United States.

Many readers may have heard of MS-13 and Barrio 18, but may not be familiar with these cartels’ names. That is because they are businesses that deliberately seek a lower profile. They prefer not to generate violence and the attention that comes with it—and when they do, it is usually directed at criminal competitors, not at the general population. Their default mode of operation is to corrupt politicians, security forces, and justice systems, rather than confront them. They maintain strong ties within Central American militaries and police. As Gen. Kelly correctly states in the Military Times article published in early July, this institutional rot and erosion is the main damage that cartels have done to Central American governments’ ability to protect their own people.

The desire to quietly move their illegal product means that the cartels mostly leave the general population alone. Instead, Central Americans are leaving because of community level violence, much of it from the gangs.

MS-13, Barrio 18, and others are much “poorer” criminal organizations than the cartels. Because they do not move tons of drugs to the United States, they make most of their money within the territories they control. Their main income streams are small-scale retail neighborhood drug dealing (narcomenudeo), extortion, robbery, contraband sales, prostitution and human trafficking, and kidnapping.

The gangs operate with a savagery that directly impacts the general population. It is they, not the cartels, who are extorting even the smallest informal businesses. It is they who are recruiting young people and forcing girls into prostitution. And it is they who are committing a larger share of homicides, many notorious for their brutality, in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries.

This is not to let the cartels off the hook; they generate some violence too. Central American governments badly need to dismantle the trafficking organizations that have done so much damage to their institutions, and the most promising way to do that is through evidence-based investigations, witness protection, systematic punishment of state corruption, and a functioning justice system.

But even if Central America’s cartels could be weakened, it is not clear what effect it would have on community-level, gang-related violence. A strategy that attacks one may have little effect on the other.

As with cartels, confronting the community-level violence displacing Central Americans will require sophisticated investigations, witness protection, anti-corruption measures, and more effective justice. It will also require police forces that understand, and have earned the trust of, communities. These steps must come with investments in education, job creation, and neighborhood livability to reduce the huge percentage of young Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans who are neither working nor studying today.

If the goal is to stop the violence forcing so many Central Americans to migrate northward, the best intermediate measures of success include public opinion of police, response times to crimes, judicial clearance of cases especially against gang leadership, and changes in school attendance and youth unemployment. The number of tons of seized U.S.-bound cocaine affects the cartels more than the gangs, and is thus less central to curbing community-level violence.

—Adam Isacson

Filed under Central America Migration Public Security Drug Policy U.S. Policy

62 notes

Are “failed U.S. policies” to blame for the rise in unaccompanied Central American migrant children?


“[T]he current surge is far more than a humanitarian crisis resulting from violence and economic failures in Central America. The perception of eventual legal status has been generated through your Administrative actions.”


— Letter to President Obama from 34 Republican members of Congress, July 2, 2014

The border between Texas and Mexico has seen a big recent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This July 2 letter, circulated by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), seeks to blame the Obama administration for the crisis, citing “failed policies that encourage young individuals to put themselves in peril, leave their home countries, and make a long and dangerous journey to enter our country illegally.”

This letter does not provide any substantial evidence to back up what have become immigration hardliners’ talking points on the failures of U.S. policies. Though evidence strongly suggests that violence is a major “push factor,” the 34 legislators’ letter instead insists that the policies spurring Central Americans to send children northward are:

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an administrative change that President Barack Obama implemented in June 2012. DACA came after Congress failed to pass the “Dream Act,” legislation that would have given permanent residency to children who arrived in the United States as minors and received college degrees or performed military service. Under DACA, young undocumented people who have lived in the United States since 2007 and meet the “Dream Act” standards may live and work in the United States, although they do not get permanent resident status.
The Obama administration’s expressed support for immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate in June 2013, but has stalled in the House. The bill would have created a “path to citizenship” for some undocumented people in the United States.
The March 2014 White House announcement that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would review its deportation procedures. In this announcement, President Obama “emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”
The Facts:

It’s unlikely that Central American families are paying such close attention to discussions of administrative changes within the U.S. executive branch. Even leaving this aside, there are at least four reasons why the House members’ letter’s claims are inaccurate.

The administrative changes cited in the letter had not yet occurred when the so-called “surge” of unaccompanied minors began.
Border Patrol statistics, depicted above, show that arrivals of unaccompanied Central American children began increasing during U.S. fiscal year 2012, which ran from October 2011 to September 2012. DACA was not announced until June 2012. Immigration reform legislation had not yet been proposed, and the review of deportation procedures was far off. In fact, in 2012 the Obama administration broke the United States’ single-year record for deportations of undocumented foreign citizens (409,849 people): hardly a welcoming message for would-be migrants.

It’s not just minors. Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran adults are leaving too. And the exodus is going to other countries.
In 2011, Border Patrol apprehended 46,997 citizens of countries “other than Mexico”—the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—near the Mexico border. So far this year (as of June 15), it has apprehended 181,724: on pace to register a three-year increase of 450 percent.

The United States may be the main destination, but several countries are seeing a similar rise in fleeing Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. Between 2008 and 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports, the number of those countries’ citizens applying for asylum in nearby Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama rose by 712 percent.

The post-2011 rise in Central American migration, and the rise in asylum claims elsewhere, indicate that violence is the preponderant factor. Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, especially Honduras, saw big increases in violent crime during the second half of the 2000s; by the 2010s these had reached levels higher than those of pre-“surge” Iraq. Gang and organized crime activity—assaults, kidnapping, extortion, rape, forced recruitment—touches nearly all the population, particularly youth. With police and justice systems near collapse amid resource scarcity and unpunished corruption, these countries’ citizens are left utterly unprotected by their states.



There is no “surge” of unaccompanied Mexican minors.
In 2009, Border Patrol apprehended 16,114 unaccompanied Mexican children, a figure that dwarfed the 3,304 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children it reported that year. Even as the number of Central American children shot upward in 2012, the number of Mexican children did not. In 2014, apprehensions of Mexican minors are on pace to match 2013 levels (about 17,250), a 7 percent increase over 2009. By contrast, 2014 apprehensions of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran minors are on pace to nearly triple 2013 levels, and to exceed 2009 apprehensions by over 1,500 percent.

Why are arrivals of unaccompanied Mexican minors relatively flat? One is less intense violence: Mexico saw a sharp increase in violent crime since the mid-2000s, but it is concentrated in a few areas. The country’s overall homicide rate today is only about a quarter as high as Honduras’s. Another is that the United States has repatriation agreements with Mexico, which include Mexican government security guarantees, that make returning unaccompanied minors a very rapid process.

While violence and poverty are the main drivers, something did happen in late 2013 and early 2014 to increase still further the rate of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States.
In a sense, there have been two increases in arrivals of unaccompanied children. One increase began at the beginning of 2012, most likely driven by the sharp rise in violent crime in the Northern Triangle. The next, even sharper, increase began early this year.

The two trendlines are evident in this graph depicting month-by-month numbers of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to which other U.S. authorities must turn over apprehended minors within 72 hours. It appears in a June 23 Congressional Research Service report.



2013, like 2012, saw an accelerating increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children. Flight from violence, including specific threats from MS-13, Barrio 18, and other criminal organizations, was likely the most significant cause. There were larger-than-normal seasonal increases in migration (and thus apprehensions) after January 2012 and January 2013. But the increase after January 2014 was even steeper. The trendline took an entirely different shape: that of a hockey stick.

Nobody knows what happened about six months ago to cause this sharp increase. There was no dramatic reported worsening of Central America’s already severe violent crime or poverty rates. There is no evidence that Central Americans suddenly came to view DACA (which only benefits people in the United States before 2007) or the stalled U.S. immigration reform debate as “green lights” to send their children northward.

One possibility is that the “hockey stick” was triggered by word spreading among the Central American population that the children who arrived since 2012 were not being detained and quickly deported. (Smugglers looking for customers may have helped spread this information.) Instead, after receiving “notices to appear” in immigration court, they were being released to—and thus reunited with—family members.

This has happened not because of DACA or immigration reform, but in accordance with an anti-human trafficking law that the U.S. Congress unanimously approved, and President George W. Bush signed into law, in December 2008. Section 235(b) of the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act” states that:

Unaccompanied children from “non-contiguous countries” (that is, all countries other than Canada and Mexico) must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement must see that they are “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
Placing a child in a “secure facility” is only called for “if a suitable family member is not available to provide care.”
“To the greatest extent practicable,” children are to have counsel represent them in legal proceedings, which may include applications for protected status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that many Central American children fleeing violence may meet the criteria for refugee status.
These legal proceedings take time, especially now that the system adjudicating such cases is overwhelmed. As a result, even if their status is never legalized and they end up eventually being deported, migrant children may end up spending a year or two living with parents or other close relatives who had come to the United States earlier. 

That would mean a year or two in which parents need not worry about their child being killed, raped, or recruited by gangs. A year or two in which the child can eat three meals per day, attend school, and face at least a slim possibility of remaining in the United States. It is easy to imagine why a parent or other close relative would find this attractive enough to scrape together as much as US$10,000 to pay a smuggler’s fee.

That so many parents would leave children behind in the first place is a direct result of U.S. policy. Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is now difficult and dangerous, after a large border security buildup that began in the 1990s and intensified in the 2000s. Before then, parents who migrated to the United States to earn money as undocumented workers could expect to go home periodically and see their children. Now, they do not attempt it because the likelihood of returning to the United States afterward is so slim. As a result, migrant parents in the United States go many years without seeing their children.

A child who was left behind while an infant or toddler 10-15 years ago is of prime gang recruitment age today, and parents’ desperation to be reunited is probably greater. The promise of doing so through the Section 235(b) process, even if temporarily while a child’s case is being adjudicated, may be a strong pull.

The research does not yet exist to confirm that the Section 235(b) provision has caused the 2014 acceleration in unaccompanied Central American minors’ migration. WOLA researchers did not hear it mentioned in interviews with migrants, migrant defenders, or shelter personnel during a February visit to Mexico’s southern border. 

On the other hand, some press reports and comments from U.S. officials have mentioned Central Americans’ belief that the U.S. government is granting special permits (“permisos”) for children. This may be a mistaken reference to the “notices to appear” issued to those being released into relatives’ custody. We do not know how widespread this belief is in Central America, or when it began to spread. But if it did, it explains some of the sharp 2014 increase in unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. government must take seriously all unaccompanied minors’ claims for protection, even if many are ultimately found to lack sufficient merit. The criminal gangs and organized crime groups driving Central America’s out-of-control violence do target young people. A significant portion of the children here probably face a credible and specific threat of death or other harm. They can also credibly claim that their own governments are unwilling or unable to protect them.

Identifying these threatened individual minors, and evaluating their cases, will take time. An expedited effort to process and deport them must not put them in harm’s way. U.S. authorities must consider each case separately.

The Obama administration is promising to “fix” the procedure for unaccompanied minors set out in the 2008 law. A funding request that the White House submitted to Congress on July 8 calls for “increased detainment and removal of adults with children and increased immigration court capacity to speed cases.” A June 30 letter to Congress from President Obama promises administrative measures “providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children.”

These measures may be necessary to deal with an overwhelmed system, but the imperative to “speed cases” must not weaken Central American children’s right to due process. Procedural changes must not mean the kind of haste that leads to deporting children who face a high probability of being killed or otherwise harmed.



As for the claims in the 34 House members’ letter? They are patently false. They ignore the timing of the wave of unaccompanied children’s arrivals. They ignore the region-wide nature of the trend. They ignore the impact of the 2008 law—the letter doesn’t even mention it—and propose no way to protect thousands of children who may face grave threats to their lives if forcibly returned. 

Instead, the letter pins the blame for the crisis on a modest measure, and two unfinished proposals, made during the Obama administration’s tenure. This leaves the unpleasant impression that its signers are comfortable using a genuine humanitarian emergency to score political points.

— Adam Isacson

Are “failed U.S. policies” to blame for the rise in unaccompanied Central American migrant children?

“[T]he current surge is far more than a humanitarian crisis resulting from violence and economic failures in Central America. The perception of eventual legal status has been generated through your Administrative actions.”

Letter to President Obama from 34 Republican members of Congress, July 2, 2014

The border between Texas and Mexico has seen a big recent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This July 2 letter, circulated by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), seeks to blame the Obama administration for the crisis, citing “failed policies that encourage young individuals to put themselves in peril, leave their home countries, and make a long and dangerous journey to enter our country illegally.”

This letter does not provide any substantial evidence to back up what have become immigration hardliners’ talking points on the failures of U.S. policies. Though evidence strongly suggests that violence is a major “push factor,” the 34 legislators’ letter instead insists that the policies spurring Central Americans to send children northward are:

  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an administrative change that President Barack Obama implemented in June 2012. DACA came after Congress failed to pass the “Dream Act,” legislation that would have given permanent residency to children who arrived in the United States as minors and received college degrees or performed military service. Under DACA, young undocumented people who have lived in the United States since 2007 and meet the “Dream Act” standards may live and work in the United States, although they do not get permanent resident status.
  • The Obama administration’s expressed support for immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate in June 2013, but has stalled in the House. The bill would have created a “path to citizenship” for some undocumented people in the United States.
  • The March 2014 White House announcement that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would review its deportation procedures. In this announcement, President Obama “emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”

The Facts:

It’s unlikely that Central American families are paying such close attention to discussions of administrative changes within the U.S. executive branch. Even leaving this aside, there are at least four reasons why the House members’ letter’s claims are inaccurate.

  1. The administrative changes cited in the letter had not yet occurred when the so-called “surge” of unaccompanied minors began.

Border Patrol statistics, depicted above, show that arrivals of unaccompanied Central American children began increasing during U.S. fiscal year 2012, which ran from October 2011 to September 2012. DACA was not announced until June 2012. Immigration reform legislation had not yet been proposed, and the review of deportation procedures was far off. In fact, in 2012 the Obama administration broke the United States’ single-year record for deportations of undocumented foreign citizens (409,849 people): hardly a welcoming message for would-be migrants.

  1. It’s not just minors. Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran adults are leaving too. And the exodus is going to other countries.

In 2011, Border Patrol apprehended 46,997 citizens of countries “other than Mexico”—the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—near the Mexico border. So far this year (as of June 15), it has apprehended 181,724: on pace to register a three-year increase of 450 percent.

The United States may be the main destination, but several countries are seeing a similar rise in fleeing Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. Between 2008 and 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports, the number of those countries’ citizens applying for asylum in nearby Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama rose by 712 percent.

The post-2011 rise in Central American migration, and the rise in asylum claims elsewhere, indicate that violence is the preponderant factor. Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, especially Honduras, saw big increases in violent crime during the second half of the 2000s; by the 2010s these had reached levels higher than those of pre-“surge” Iraq. Gang and organized crime activity—assaults, kidnapping, extortion, rape, forced recruitment—touches nearly all the population, particularly youth. With police and justice systems near collapse amid resource scarcity and unpunished corruption, these countries’ citizens are left utterly unprotected by their states.

  1. There is no “surge” of unaccompanied Mexican minors.

In 2009, Border Patrol apprehended 16,114 unaccompanied Mexican children, a figure that dwarfed the 3,304 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children it reported that year. Even as the number of Central American children shot upward in 2012, the number of Mexican children did not. In 2014, apprehensions of Mexican minors are on pace to match 2013 levels (about 17,250), a 7 percent increase over 2009. By contrast, 2014 apprehensions of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran minors are on pace to nearly triple 2013 levels, and to exceed 2009 apprehensions by over 1,500 percent.

Why are arrivals of unaccompanied Mexican minors relatively flat? One is less intense violence: Mexico saw a sharp increase in violent crime since the mid-2000s, but it is concentrated in a few areas. The country’s overall homicide rate today is only about a quarter as high as Honduras’s. Another is that the United States has repatriation agreements with Mexico, which include Mexican government security guarantees, that make returning unaccompanied minors a very rapid process.

  1. While violence and poverty are the main drivers, something did happen in late 2013 and early 2014 to increase still further the rate of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States.

In a sense, there have been two increases in arrivals of unaccompanied children. One increase began at the beginning of 2012, most likely driven by the sharp rise in violent crime in the Northern Triangle. The next, even sharper, increase began early this year.

The two trendlines are evident in this graph depicting month-by-month numbers of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to which other U.S. authorities must turn over apprehended minors within 72 hours. It appears in a June 23 Congressional Research Service report.

2013, like 2012, saw an accelerating increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children. Flight from violence, including specific threats from MS-13, Barrio 18, and other criminal organizations, was likely the most significant cause. There were larger-than-normal seasonal increases in migration (and thus apprehensions) after January 2012 and January 2013. But the increase after January 2014 was even steeper. The trendline took an entirely different shape: that of a hockey stick.

Nobody knows what happened about six months ago to cause this sharp increase. There was no dramatic reported worsening of Central America’s already severe violent crime or poverty rates. There is no evidence that Central Americans suddenly came to view DACA (which only benefits people in the United States before 2007) or the stalled U.S. immigration reform debate as “green lights” to send their children northward.

One possibility is that the “hockey stick” was triggered by word spreading among the Central American population that the children who arrived since 2012 were not being detained and quickly deported. (Smugglers looking for customers may have helped spread this information.) Instead, after receiving “notices to appear” in immigration court, they were being released to—and thus reunited with—family members.

This has happened not because of DACA or immigration reform, but in accordance with an anti-human trafficking law that the U.S. Congress unanimously approved, and President George W. Bush signed into law, in December 2008. Section 235(b) of the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act” states that:

  • Unaccompanied children from “non-contiguous countries” (that is, all countries other than Canada and Mexico) must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement must see that they are “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
  • Placing a child in a “secure facility” is only called for “if a suitable family member is not available to provide care.”
  • “To the greatest extent practicable,” children are to have counsel represent them in legal proceedings, which may include applications for protected status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that many Central American children fleeing violence may meet the criteria for refugee status.

These legal proceedings take time, especially now that the system adjudicating such cases is overwhelmed. As a result, even if their status is never legalized and they end up eventually being deported, migrant children may end up spending a year or two living with parents or other close relatives who had come to the United States earlier.

That would mean a year or two in which parents need not worry about their child being killed, raped, or recruited by gangs. A year or two in which the child can eat three meals per day, attend school, and face at least a slim possibility of remaining in the United States. It is easy to imagine why a parent or other close relative would find this attractive enough to scrape together as much as US$10,000 to pay a smuggler’s fee.

That so many parents would leave children behind in the first place is a direct result of U.S. policy. Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is now difficult and dangerous, after a large border security buildup that began in the 1990s and intensified in the 2000s. Before then, parents who migrated to the United States to earn money as undocumented workers could expect to go home periodically and see their children. Now, they do not attempt it because the likelihood of returning to the United States afterward is so slim. As a result, migrant parents in the United States go many years without seeing their children.

A child who was left behind while an infant or toddler 10-15 years ago is of prime gang recruitment age today, and parents’ desperation to be reunited is probably greater. The promise of doing so through the Section 235(b) process, even if temporarily while a child’s case is being adjudicated, may be a strong pull.

The research does not yet exist to confirm that the Section 235(b) provision has caused the 2014 acceleration in unaccompanied Central American minors’ migration. WOLA researchers did not hear it mentioned in interviews with migrants, migrant defenders, or shelter personnel during a February visit to Mexico’s southern border.

On the other hand, some press reports and comments from U.S. officials have mentioned Central Americans’ belief that the U.S. government is granting special permits (“permisos”) for children. This may be a mistaken reference to the “notices to appear” issued to those being released into relatives’ custody. We do not know how widespread this belief is in Central America, or when it began to spread. But if it did, it explains some of the sharp 2014 increase in unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. government must take seriously all unaccompanied minors’ claims for protection, even if many are ultimately found to lack sufficient merit. The criminal gangs and organized crime groups driving Central America’s out-of-control violence do target young people. A significant portion of the children here probably face a credible and specific threat of death or other harm. They can also credibly claim that their own governments are unwilling or unable to protect them.

Identifying these threatened individual minors, and evaluating their cases, will take time. An expedited effort to process and deport them must not put them in harm’s way. U.S. authorities must consider each case separately.

The Obama administration is promising to “fix” the procedure for unaccompanied minors set out in the 2008 law. A funding request that the White House submitted to Congress on July 8 calls for “increased detainment and removal of adults with children and increased immigration court capacity to speed cases.” A June 30 letter to Congress from President Obama promises administrative measures “providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children.”

These measures may be necessary to deal with an overwhelmed system, but the imperative to “speed cases” must not weaken Central American children’s right to due process. Procedural changes must not mean the kind of haste that leads to deporting children who face a high probability of being killed or otherwise harmed.

As for the claims in the 34 House members’ letter? They are patently false. They ignore the timing of the wave of unaccompanied children’s arrivals. They ignore the region-wide nature of the trend. They ignore the impact of the 2008 law—the letter doesn’t even mention it—and propose no way to protect thousands of children who may face grave threats to their lives if forcibly returned.

Instead, the letter pins the blame for the crisis on a modest measure, and two unfinished proposals, made during the Obama administration’s tenure. This leaves the unpleasant impression that its signers are comfortable using a genuine humanitarian emergency to score political points.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Central America Migration Unaccompanied Minors Border Security U.S. Congress

3 notes

Is the border really “leaking?”

“I see the engine of this immigration ship not working. The bureaucracy is failing. But I also see on the ship that we’ve got a leak — we don’t know who is coming in and out across our borders. If you have a ship that has an engine that is not working and a leak in the bottom, what do you fix first? You fix the leak. My fear is we’re not really enforcing (immigration laws) right now.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois), quoted August 31, 2013.

The Facts:

In fact, we do have a good idea of who is coming in and out across our borders — or at least, a better idea than we have ever had.

1. Who is coming in:

In 2011, Border Patrol estimated that 533,571 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Of these, 84 percent (448,104) were either apprehended or turned back into Mexico.

It is true that Border Patrol has not regularly reported the number of migrants it estimates to have turned back or eluded capture, and no such estimates are yet publicly available for 2012. But the agency publishes decades of data on its apprehensions of migrants, a decent indicator of the overall flow of “who is coming in.”

In 2012, Border Patrol apprehended 356,873 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. That was up slightly from 2011, but still the second-smallest number measured since 1973. According to this indicator (as well as others like migrant surveys and testimonies from shelters), undocumented migration has plummeted rapidly. As recently as 2006, Border Patrol was routinely apprehending a million or more migrants.

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Better technologies may reveal a larger number of migrants who evade capture, especially in remote areas. But still, using current methods the percentage of those who are apprehended appears to be growing, as a December 2012 Government Accountability Office report attests. And recidivism rates — the number of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before — are lower than they have been since measurements began, notes the Congressional Research Service [PDF].

2. Who is coming out:

In eight of the past ten years, including 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) set a new record for the number of undocumented individuals removed [PDF] from the United States. Last year ICE totaled 409,849 removals, up from 165,168 a decade earlier and 43,671 in 1992.

If past years’ proportions are a guide, about two-thirds (perhaps 275,000) of these removed individuals came from Mexico and Central America. Add the number of individuals returned by Border Patrol last year (likely between 250,000 and 300,000), and you get over 525,000 undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America “coming out” of the United States.

That is quite similar to the 533,571 people whom Border Patrol estimated to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2011. With almost the same numbers going “out” as are going “in,” the “leak” to which Rep. Hultgren refers is actually a net of about zero migrants. In fact, after reaching a 40-year low, it could even be seeping outward.

Estimates of the population living here illegally bear that out. It has been declining, from a high of 12.4 million people in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2011.

3. We are “enforcing immigration laws right now.”

In fact, immigration laws are being enforced far more strongly than they ever have. In 2012, CRS reports [PDF], 86 percent of apprehended migrants had to go through some sort of “consequence delivery” (criminal trial, lateral repatriation, formal deportation proceeding, or others) instead of being voluntarily returned. Only 14 percent were voluntarily returned. As recently as 2005, 77 percent were voluntarily returned.

Source: Congressional Research Service (PDF)

We can and should debate the effectiveness, and the humaneness, of these “consequence delivery” measures. But it’s impossible to dispute that they — and “immigration laws” in general — are not being “enforced right now.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under migration border security statistics

0 notes

Is the Cornyn Amendment’s Border Security Standard a “Poison Pill” for Immigration Reform?

"The Secretary [of Homeland Security] may not adjust the status of aliens who have been granted registered provisional immigrant status… until … the Secretary has achieved and maintained operational control of the Southern border for the 12-month period immediately preceding such certification. …

"The term 'operational control' means that, within each and every sector of the Southern border, a condition exists in which there is an effectiveness rate, informed by situational awareness, of not lower than 90 percent. …

"The term 'effectiveness rate' means a metric, informed by situational awareness, that measures the percentage calculated by dividing—
(A) the number of illegal border crossers who are apprehended or turned back during a fiscal year … by
(B) the total number of illegal entries in the sector during such fiscal year.”

—From the text of Senate Amendment 1251 to S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, proposed yesterday by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and 15 other Republican Party senators.

As it considers a sweeping immigration reform, the full U.S. Senate is expected to debate and vote on the Cornyn amendment today. Known as the “Requiring Enforcement, Security and safety while Upgrading Lawful Trade and travel Simultaneously (RESULTS)” provision, this amendment would tighten the so-called “trigger”: a border security threshold that must first be met in order for undocumented migrants to attain legal status.

In plain English: both the existing immigration reform bill and the Cornyn amendment are gauging border security using a measure that they call an “effectiveness rate.” To calculate it, they look at the number of border-crossers that U.S. authorities apprehend, the number who they “turn back” across the border, and the number whom they believe “got away.” Both the bill and the amendment call for a 90 percent effectiveness rate. To achieve this threshold, the number of “got aways” would have to be less than 10 percent of the total number of detected border-crossers.

If this 90 percent threshold is not met within five years, the current Senate bill would require a special Southern Border Security Commission to make recommendations for policy changes. An additional US$2 billion in border security funds (over an initial US$4.5 billion) would be available to implement the commission’s recommendations. If the 90 percent goal is not met, immigrants seeking to legalize their status would not be affected.

Under the Cornyn amendment, if the 90 percent threshold is not met, immigrants will not be allowed to exit their temporary “provisional immigrant” status and embark on the “path to citizenship.”

Some Democrats call this amendment a “poison pill" — a requirement that sets such a high border-security standard that it achieves what they believe to be the amendment’s authors’ real goal: blocking the "path to citizenship" for currently undocumented migrants.

The Facts:

The border security “trigger” argument hinges on whether the 90 percent “effectiveness rate” is a reasonable standard.

In 2011, statistics from a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report reveal, the effectiveness rate was 84 percent. The illustration shows where the Border Patrol’s nine sectors stood that year (click to enlarge).

The Senate bill would increase spending on border security. Even more law enforcement presence along the border could increase apprehensions, which might appear to bring the 90 percent “effectiveness” goal within reach.

But the new security spending will also include investment in new technologies that, ironically, could make the 90 percent goal more elusive than ever.

A host of new sensors, cameras, drones, radars, and other imagery and detection equipment — some of it developed for Defense Department use in Iraq and Afghanistan — could find a great deal more border crossers who currently go undetected, especially in remote, rural areas. U.S. agencies’ new gadgets may tell them that the number of “got aways” is greater than they thought. That was the experience of an early 2013 test run of VADER, a Defense Department radar system, in Arizona. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, VADER revealed an “effectiveness rate” in Tucson many percentage points lower than the official number.

With technology revealing more “got-aways” than previously thought, the 90 percent threshold could be farther off, not closer. Meanwhile, heightened border security may drive border-crossers to even more remote areas, where actually being on the scene and apprehending people is hardest. Note the conditions right now in the massive Big Bend sector of west Texas, which registered a small number of migrants but the lowest “effectiveness rate” — 68 percent — of all sectors in 2011. Because Big Bend is far from any population centers, it may never become the number-one destination for migrants. But because it is so empty and difficult to patrol, there is still room for massive growth here, and in the neighboring Del Rio sector, if a crackdown succeeds elsewhere.

A look at the numbers, recent geographical migration trends, and the likely impact of better detection technologies leads us to conclude that the 90 percent threshold is unlikely to be met across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, the Cornyn amendment would probably put the “path to citizenship” out of reach.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Migration immigration reform U.S. Congress

1 note

Are citizens who leave water in the desert encouraging migrants or meeting a humanitarian need?

“[Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agent Colleen] Agle said smugglers often lie to immigrants, telling them they’ll only walk a couple of hours when they actually walk for days. Even so, the agency discourages water stations for crossers because authorities say it encourages people to risk the journey.”

— Amanda Lee Myers and Julie Watson, “Migrants say Arizona worth risk of crossing,” Associated Press, August 31, 2010

Border Patrol agents in south Texas have welcomed efforts to leave water out for migrants, in order to stem a rapid increase in the number of people dying on U.S. soil from dehydration. “Anytime someone can do something proactively like this it is great, Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley sector spokesman Henry Mendiola told Fox News Latino in January. “These are human lives we’re talking about.”

In Arizona, however, things are very different. Border Patrol agents interviewed by WOLA echoed the arguments in the quotes above. They contend that leaving water for migrants increases incentives for migration, and that much of the water ends up being used by smugglers. Arizona activist groups have resorted to leaving hidden cameras near their water stations, which have captured Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study last week that shows migrants’ need for water is desperate.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

They found that dangerous journeys, with a very real risk of death from dehydration, are exceedingly common in places like southern Arizona and south Texas.

“Three quarters [of those surveyed - 72%] relied on a ‘coyote’ or human smuggler to get into the United States, agreeing to pay a median of 2,500 USD for their services. They walked for more than two days through the harsh conditions along the border. Thirty-nine percent ran out of water during their trip and 31% ran out of food. The extreme heat and harsh terrain where people cross has killed thousands of people.”

With two out of five migrants running out of water in the desert, the volunteers who leave it for them may be keeping many human beings from avoiding the fate of the 463 migrants whose remains Border Patrol counted [PDF] on the U.S. side of the border in 2012.

Dehydration and hunger are not the only dangers that the University of Arizona study revealed to be alarmingly common. Of those surveyed:

  • 12 percent were robbed by bandits during their last crossing.
  • 7 percent were kidnapped (83 out of 1,113; of these, 29 were kidnapped in the United States).
  • 6 people witnessed rape.
  • 2 people witnessed murders.
  • 12 percent witnessed some form of violence against female migrants.
  • 17 percent were victims of “cyber kidnappings,” defined as “where people call with false claims about having kidnapped a family member to extort a ransom.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border Patrol

0 notes

Is “Operation Streamline” being carried out in a way that respects due process?

“Operation Streamline, a fast-track program, resolves a federal criminal case with prison and deportation consequences in approximately two days or less. This program can serve as a deterrent against future illegal immigration in existing Border Patrol sectors.” — Sen. Chuck Grassley, May 17 2011.

Captured migrants who are sent to “Operation Streamline” enter the federal criminal court system, where they are processed very quickly. Normally about 40-80 migrants stand trial at a time, with guilty verdicts rapidly issued. Many receive prison sentences, usually of a few months’ duration. Supporters of the program, which began in 2005, dismiss charges that these speedy mass trials violate due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study last week raising important concerns about due process in Operation Streamline. They find defendants are rarely informed about their rights, and are often advised by their own court-appointed defense lawyers to accept the charges against them.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

They found that “Streamlined” deportees — 32 percent of those surveyed — were usually left in the dark about their legal rights.

“When asked ‘what did your lawyer inform you about your rights?’ only 40% mentioned some sort of basic legal right such as the right to silence or a fair trial. Forty percent stated that their lawyer simply informed them they needed to sign their deportation and plead guilty. Nine percent reported that their lawyers did not tell them anything. Only 2% reported being informed that they could denounce abuses and 1% (3 people) stated that the lawyer checked for legal migration options due to family connections, which is generally the first and most important duty of any immigration attorney.”

In addition, of “Streamlined” deportees, 92 percent said they were shackled at the wrists, waist, and ankles during the Operation Streamline process. Their median time spent in shackles was six hours. Thirty-eight percent of them were sent to a detention center. Eight percent reported being threatened by other inmates.

The University of Arizona study recommends ending Operation Streamline. It says Streamline “represents a violation of the U.S. Constitution by trying people in masse rather than as individuals.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Immigration

16 notes

How common or rare is abuse of migrants in U.S. custody?

How common or rare is abuse of migrants in U.S. custody?

“The Department of Homeland Security claims that only three complaints were lodged against Border Patrol detention conditions for the entirety of 2010 (the most current data), a year when agents apprehended more than 463,000 individuals. Only 10 complaints were filed for ‘abuse of authority’ that year and 13 for ‘discrimination.’ … Customs and Border Patrol in Washington responded in even more general terms: ‘CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission,’ an agency spokesperson said by email. ‘We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and … we are fully committed to protecting the health, safety and human rights of all individuals with whom we interact.’” — John Carlos Frey, “Cruelty on the Border,” Salon.com, July 20, 2012

The Facts:

Non-governmental groups have already documented what appears to be a far more widespread problem of migrant abuse while in the custody of U.S. authorities. Last week, a team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study adding new evidence.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

Of those surveyed:

  • 11 percent reported physical abuse by U.S. authorities.
  • 23 percent reported verbal abuse by U.S. authorities.
  • 45 percent did not receive sufficient food while in U.S. custody.
  • 39 percent had possessions taken and not returned by U.S. authorities.
  • 26 percent were carrying Mexican identifying documents and had at least one document taken and not returned.

On the other hand, 57 percent of deportees surveyed said that “everyone” or “the majority” of Border Patrol agents “treated me with respect” Twenty-nine percent said “about half of them treated me with respect.” Still, these numbers are indicative of more than just a few “bad apples.”

The University of Arizona study recommends a series of measures that Border Patrol and other agencies should take to review their use-of-force guidelines and to improve mechanisms for transparency and dealing with abuse complaints. These include reexamining internal affairs procedures, improving training programs, establishing a chain of custody for migrants’ possessions, and reevaluating legal procedures to ensure migrants know what they are signing.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border security Border Patrol human rights

0 notes

Does deporting migrants far from where they were apprehended deter them from trying to cross again?

“ATEP [the Alien Transfer Exit Program] is an ongoing program whereby the Office of Border Patrol, in collaboration with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), moves Mexican nationals apprehended in one Border Patrol Sector to another ERO Area of Responsibility before removing them to Mexico. ATEP breaks the smuggling cycle by repatriating aliens into regions further east or west of their entry location and, thus, preventing them from immediately coordinating with their smugglers for re-entry.” — Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, congressional testimony, May 3, 2011

The ATEP program deports tens of thousands of migrants each year to Mexican border cities hundreds or thousands of miles from where they were apprehended. Critics of the program claim that it routinely separates families, and endangers migrants by dropping them off — often in the middle of the night — in unfamiliar border cities dominated by organized-crime groups who prey upon or even seek to recruit them. Defenders of ATEP say that these “lateral transfers” deter migrants from attempting to cross again.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona has published an extensive study this week raising important concerns about the ATEP program. They find that the program rarely discourages repeat border crossings.

image

To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

Their surveys lead them to conclude that ATEP “appears to have no impact on whether or not people will cross again.” In an e-mail communication, study co-author Daniel Martínez told WOLA that the 18 percent of surveyed deportees who were repatriated far from their point of apprehension were just as likely as other deportees to say they intended to attempt the crossing again.

“People who go through ATEP actually report intending to cross again at a higher rate than people who do not (31% of those processed through ATEP intend to cross within a week, compared to 24% of those who were not laterally repatriated). However, after one controls for various factors, the effect of ATEP on future crossings in not statistically significant. Ultimately, I can confidently say that ATEP does not influence future crossing decisions.”

The study also notes that of all deportees (including non-ATEP deportees), fully 18 percent were dropped off in Mexican border cities between the hours of 10:00PM and 5:00AM, a time when all basic services are closed and public security conditions are worst. Many of these night deportations are part of a surprising recent “increase in deportation to Mexico’s northeastern border where drug fueled violence has had a huge impact on migrants.”

The study recommends ending ATEP and ceasing night deportations.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border Patrol Border Security

0 notes

Are most deportees recent arrivals with criminal records, or longtime residents leaving behind relatives?

“My instructions to the Department of Homeland Security have been that we have to focus our attention, our enforcement, on people who genuinely pose a threat to our communities, not to hardworking families who are minding their own business and oftentimes have members of their family who are U.S. citizens — because that’s a — that’s a priority in terms of limited enforcement resources. … So more than half of our enforcement now is directed at people with criminal records. Of the remaining half, about two-thirds are actually people who are typically apprehended close to the border, so these are not people who have longstanding roots in our community.”

— President Barack Obama, Univision interview, September 20, 2012

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona has published an extensive study this week that casts doubt on the President’s affirmation. In fact, they find, the past few years’ record levels of deportations heavily affect “established” migrants who are separated from family members — many of whom are U.S. citizens.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012. These cities accounted for 66 percent of all repatriations to Mexico in 2011.

They found that deportees with “longstanding roots in our community,” to use the President’s phrase, are common.

“Three quarters [74 percent] of deportees had previously lived or worked in the United States. Among those who had lived or worked in the United States, the median time spent in the country was seven years.”

The University of Arizona team found a disturbingly high incidence of family separation.

“Half [51 percent] had at least one family member who was a U.S. citizen, and nearly one in four [22 percent] had at least one child under the age of 18 who had U.S. citizenship.”

“This is a strikingly different portrait of deportees than the common conception of seasonal laborers and young single men with no real ties to the United States,” the study reminds us. It dovetails strongly with statistics released in April 2012, which showed that 22 percent of those deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the first half of 2011 — 46,486 people — were parents of U.S. citizen children.

With so many deportees forced to leave spouses and children behind, it should not be surprising that neither the deportation experience nor heightened border security is dissuading them from attempting to return. When asked whether they planned to cross back into the United States in the future, 56 percent of recent deportees said “yes.” Twenty-five percent said they would attempt the journey within the next week.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Migration Mexico deportation family separation

0 notes

Is illegal immigration “rising steadily?”

Illegal immigration has risen steadily since the 1980s. While our research shows that new illegal entries have slackened somewhat since 2007, there are signs that the tide could be shifting again. According to numbers just released by CBP, in 2012 southwest border apprehensions, which the agency has used as an indicator of the number of illegal crossings, went up by nine percent.

— From the testimony of Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, given in a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on February 5, 2013 [PDF].

The Facts:

Three statements here need correction or further explanation.

1. Illegal immigration has not “risen steadily since the 1980s.” Border Patrol migrant apprehension data show this clearly. While nobody knows how many migrants are actually crossing the border, the number of those whom Border Patrol captures are our best indicator of whether the overall number is going up or down.

Migrant apprehensions are significantly fewer now than they were in the 1980s. In fact, they’re at their lowest level since 1972. The following graph of apprehensions is drawn from Border Patrol data since 1960, available in this table [PDF] on CBP’s website.

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2. New illegal entries have not “slackened somewhat since 2007.” If apprehensions are any measure, they have fallen precipitously, as the above graph shows. Apprehensions dropped a remarkably steep 58 percent since 2007, and 69 percent since 2005.

3. In perspective, the increase in apprehensions from 2011 to 2012 is too small to indicate a trend: 7 percent at the U.S.-Mexico border, and 9 percent throughout the country. The 2011 apprehensions figure was the lowest Border Patrol recorded since 1972; the 2012 figure was the second-lowest that Border Patrol recorded since 1972. There is no way to tell whether last year’s increase — which is almost too small to be visible on the above graph — is a blip in an overall downward trend, or a sign of a “shifting tide.”

It is clear, though, that the number of Mexican migrants is still dropping. Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexican citizens (blue in the below graph) dropped again in 2012, for the eighth straight year. Would-be migrants from Mexico are clearly being discouraged from attempting the trip by tougher measures in the United States, a sluggish U.S. economy, greater growth in Mexico, and the alarming security situation in Mexico’s border communities.

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All of last year’s increase in apprehensions was due to a near-doubling of migrants from other countries, mainly Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “Other than Mexican” citizens made up 27 percent of all apprehended migrants in 2012, a far greater proportion than any other shown in Border Patrol’s records since 2000. (Border Patrol supplies these records online for apprehended Mexican citizens [PDF] and “other than Mexican” citizens [PDF].)

Nearly all of this increase in non-Mexican apprehensions occurred in south-east Texas, even as other Border Patrol sectors saw fewer apprehensions last year.

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It is not clear why would-be Central American migrants are not being deterred by the same factors that are forcing down Mexican citizens’ migration. The poverty and violence currently suffered in Central America’s “northern triangle” countries is the most likely explanation.

Whatever the reason, the picture is complicated. And claims that migration is inexorably rising — as in the testimony cited here — don’t help us to understand it.

Filed under Migration Statistics

0 notes

Is Yuma a standard for a secure border, or an outlier?


  “[W]e have to have control to the level we have on the Yuma sector today, and we can achieve it and it’s doable, so we’ll do it.”


— Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), January 31, 2012

John McCain is one of eight senators, from both parties, who issued a proposal for immigration reform on Monday. The senators’ proposal establishes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants. But as their plan foresees it, this reform wouldn’t begin until “enforcement measures have been completed” and a commission of state governors, attorneys-general, and community leaders certifies that the border is secure.

In other words, the senators’ plan requires that border security come first, before immigration reform. The White House’s plan, introduced Tuesday, does not include this condition. Whether the border must first be “secure” is emerging as a central point of disagreement.

The eight senators don’t seem to agree, though, what “secure” means. “If we made the path to citizenship contingent on a safe and secure border, and just used that phrase, then it’s in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois). 

But Republicans McCain and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) define a secure border rather strictly. The Associated Press reports:

“Rubio has said that ‘operational security’ of the 2,000-mile border should be achieved before illegal immigrants can begin to achieve citizenship. He’s defined that as law enforcement having a very high probability of being able to prevent somebody from illegally crossing the border or apprehending them if they do. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 said that of the nine southwestern border sectors, only the Yuma, Ariz., sector had reported full operational security. [Also called ‘operational control.’]”

The Facts:

The Yuma sector, encompassing the border in far eastern California and far western Arizona, is one of nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. Of all nine, it is the sector that has seen the steepest drop in apprehensions of migrants (and thus, presumably, the steepest drop in migrant crossings) since 2005: from 138,000 apprehensions that year to 6,000 in 2011.

Holding all nine border sectors to the Yuma standard of “operational security,” though, may be too high a standard. The Yuma sector is something of an outlier.

It has no major destination cities to attract migrants; the sector’s only significant population centers within 200 miles of the border are Yuma (population 95,000), Blythe (21,000) and Wellton (3,000), Arizona. Only two north-south roads, neither an interstate highway, parallel the Colorado river. The terrain is empty desert.

Google Maps satellite view of the Yuma sector.The Yuma sector has only three Border Patrol stations. This is the least of all nine sectors, some of which have 12. It ranks seventh among the nine sectors in the number of miles of border that must be guarded (126), so it is not unusual that it should be eighth in migrant apprehensions.



Yet despite these advantages, the Yuma sector shows how difficult “operational security” is to maintain, much less to define. In 2012, Yuma was one of four sectors to register an increase in migrant apprehensions — a 14 percent rise, with 40 percent of those caught coming from countries other than Mexico (principally Central America).

If immigration reform must wait until all nine border sectors have reached the standard of Yuma today, as Senators McCain and Rubio indicate, then immigration reform may have to wait a long time.

— Adam Isacson

Is Yuma a standard for a secure border, or an outlier?

“[W]e have to have control to the level we have on the Yuma sector today, and we can achieve it and it’s doable, so we’ll do it.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), January 31, 2012

John McCain is one of eight senators, from both parties, who issued a proposal for immigration reform on Monday. The senators’ proposal establishes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants. But as their plan foresees it, this reform wouldn’t begin until “enforcement measures have been completed” and a commission of state governors, attorneys-general, and community leaders certifies that the border is secure.

In other words, the senators’ plan requires that border security come first, before immigration reform. The White House’s plan, introduced Tuesday, does not include this condition. Whether the border must first be “secure” is emerging as a central point of disagreement.

The eight senators don’t seem to agree, though, what “secure” means. “If we made the path to citizenship contingent on a safe and secure border, and just used that phrase, then it’s in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois).

But Republicans McCain and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) define a secure border rather strictly. The Associated Press reports:

“Rubio has said that ‘operational security’ of the 2,000-mile border should be achieved before illegal immigrants can begin to achieve citizenship. He’s defined that as law enforcement having a very high probability of being able to prevent somebody from illegally crossing the border or apprehending them if they do. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 said that of the nine southwestern border sectors, only the Yuma, Ariz., sector had reported full operational security. [Also called ‘operational control.’]”

The Facts:

The Yuma sector, encompassing the border in far eastern California and far western Arizona, is one of nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. Of all nine, it is the sector that has seen the steepest drop in apprehensions of migrants (and thus, presumably, the steepest drop in migrant crossings) since 2005: from 138,000 apprehensions that year to 6,000 in 2011.

Holding all nine border sectors to the Yuma standard of “operational security,” though, may be too high a standard. The Yuma sector is something of an outlier.

It has no major destination cities to attract migrants; the sector’s only significant population centers within 200 miles of the border are Yuma (population 95,000), Blythe (21,000) and Wellton (3,000), Arizona. Only two north-south roads, neither an interstate highway, parallel the Colorado river. The terrain is empty desert.

image
Google Maps satellite view of the Yuma sector.

The Yuma sector has only three Border Patrol stations. This is the least of all nine sectors, some of which have 12. It ranks seventh among the nine sectors in the number of miles of border that must be guarded (126), so it is not unusual that it should be eighth in migrant apprehensions.

image

Yet despite these advantages, the Yuma sector shows how difficult “operational security” is to maintain, much less to define. In 2012, Yuma was one of four sectors to register an increase in migrant apprehensions — a 14 percent rise, with 40 percent of those caught coming from countries other than Mexico (principally Central America).

If immigration reform must wait until all nine border sectors have reached the standard of Yuma today, as Senators McCain and Rubio indicate, then immigration reform may have to wait a long time.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Immigration Reform U.S. Congress Migration

1 note

What does it mean to “secure the border” before reforming immigration?

"It’s simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."

Conservative radio host Sean Hannity, November 8, 2012.

Numerous leading Republicans appear to be adopting a pro-immigration reform stance in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s November 6 presidential election defeat, in which the Latino vote played an important role [PDF].

Like Hannity, though, many of these suddenly pro-reform figures stipulate that the border must first be secured before there can be movement toward comprehensive immigration reform.

"I have a simple request for the President and Congress: Secure our border first," reads a November 9 statement [PDF] from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R). “Demonstrate that you take seriously the safety concerns of Americans living in the border region. With that completed, we can pursue – together – ways to fix our Nation’s broader immigration system in a fashion that is effective, practical and humane.”

"When you see this comprehensive immigration reform coming like a train, on our side, we are all very interested in that issue, but we have to have a high degree of confidence that our borders are secure," said Rep. Candace Miller (R-Michigan), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security.

The Facts:

"Securing the border first" may prove to be an impossible standard to meet. Relying on this standard could become a means to postpone immigration reform indefinitely.

  • Though apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 61 percent between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. Border Patrol still apprehended 327,577 migrants there in 2011[PDF]. Though in fewer numbers, migrants are still able to get through.

  • Seizures of drugs in the U.S-Mexico border zone remain near all-time high levels [PDF, see page 50]. While this indicates more effectiveness at stopping drugs, it also shows that traffickers are not being deterred.

  • While crime statistics show that “spillover” of violence from Mexico is very rare, incidents do occur, like the September 2010 murder of a boater on Falcon Lake, Texas; the December 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona; and the October 2011 wounding of a sheriff’s deputy in Hidalgo County, Texas.

  • 649 miles of the 1,954-mile border now has a fence running along it [PDF, see page 9], but most of the Texas-Mexico border along the winding Rio Grande remains unfenced. To build a fence, estimates Texas Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas), would “take 10 to 15 years and US$30 billion.”

The 2006 Secure Fence Act [PDF] set out the following definition for “operational control” of the border: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

Despite a large federal border-security buildup and a sharp reduction in migration and violence on the U.S. side of the border, that standard of preventing all unlawful entries remains far from met, and is likely to remain so.

"They’ll never secure the border 100 percent," the controversial sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, told the conservative Breitbart News website on November 13. “So it’s a cop-out so you don’t do anything in the interior.”

If opponents want to delay comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely, they can do so by insisting on “securing the border first.” It seems disingenuous, though, to do so while claiming to support immigration reform.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Migration

1 note

Does the administration “cook the books” on deportation numbers through the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP)?

“[T]he Obama administration is cooking the books to achieve their so-called “record” deportation numbers for illegal immigrants.… There are no penalties or bars attached when illegal immigrants are sent by via ATEP and they can simply attempt re-entry.”

— Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)

In late August, Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused the Obama administration of inflating deportation numbers by including as-of-2011 numbers from the ATEP program in its total removal numbers for the year. In the weeks following this statement, there have been multiple opinion pieces reiterating this argument, most recently an op-ed by Smith himself published in the Washington Times on September 26.

The Facts:

A quick glance at Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) removal statistics shows that the agency isn’t distorting the numbers; ICE clearly explains where it gets its numbers, and its methodology hasn’t changed in recent years. The removal statistics are divided by the categories of criminal offender, repeat immigration violator, border removal, immigration fugitive, and other removable alien.


Source: ICE

Migrants subject to ATEP would fall under the category of border removals, a number that has in fact increased by almost 20,000 between FY2011 and FY2012 (as of August), probably as a result of the greater use of programs such as ATEP to repatriate migrants. While the FY2012 totals are still pending, total removal numbers since 2009 have changed very little, with roughly 7,000 more migrants being deported in FY2011 as compared to FY2009. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the removal numbers is that overall the total number of non-criminals being deported decreased to 180,208 in FY2011 as compared to FY2009 when they were at 253,491, reflecting the Obama administration’s priority on targeting criminals for deportation.

Smith’s statement that there are no penalties under ATEP is also misleading. ATEP is part of the Customs and Border Protection’s “consequence delivery system” which was designed to ”provide a consequence for illegal activity by attaching legal/administrative penalties to every violation utilizing a vast suite of law enforcement, legal, and administrative actions.” During our field research in Tucson, one Border Patrol agent told us that a migrant who had been criminally prosecuted for illegal entry under Operation Streamline (which sends migrants into the criminal justice system) could then, after possibly serving time in jail, be put on a bus and laterally repatriated to another part of the border, thus experiencing two consequences for the individual’s attempted entry into the United States. A consequence delivery system guide for the Tucson Sector that we had the opportunity to view also encourages the combination of any of the “consequences” in the system, again pointing to the fact that a migrant may be processed in quick court or through Streamline and then also subject to lateral repatriation through ATEP.

The numbers and consequences aside, there are serious concerns about the Alien Transfer Exit Program. As we highlighted in our report, the program’s main objective is to move undocumented migrants from the sector where they were detained to another location for removal as a way to disrupt the connection between the migrants and the human smugglers with whom they originally crossed, thus making it harder to repeatedly cross the border. A recent Los Angeles Times article has a harrowing description of the many dangers migrants may experience after they are detained by the Border Patrol in one part of the border and then transported by ICE and deported back to Mexico in another. The insecurity of many of Mexico’s border cities, particularly those bordering eastern Texas, makes these migrants easy prey for criminal groups who target migrants for kidnapping or as potential recruits. Apart from repatriating migrants to some of the most dangerous cities on the Mexican side of the border, ATEP also separates migrants from their families and traveling companions, which may also put them at greater risk.

- Maureen Meyer

Filed under Migration Consequence Delivery ATEP

0 notes

Families are already being separated, at record rates

“The truth is that he would separate families that have been here for generations.”

Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), in his September 4 Democratic Convention speech, predicts what Mitt Romney would do if elected president.

The Facts:

It is true that Governor Romney, through his support for “self-deportation” and opposition to the DREAM Act (except for military personnel), has espoused policies that, if enacted, would likely separate families.

However, if a Mitt Romney administration were to separate families through deportation, it would merely be continuing a practice that accelerated sharply during Barack Obama’s administration.

Shattered Families,” a November 2011 report by the Applied Research Center (ARC), documents an alarming recent increase in migrant family separations using official data.

[I]n the six months between January and June 2011, Immigration and Customs enforcement removed 46,486 parents of U.S.-citizen children from the United States. This signifies a marked increase in the deportation rate of parents of U.S. citizens.

“The last time the federal government released equivalent data, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General reported that it carried out more than 180,000 removals of noncitizen parents of U.S.-citizen children between 1998 and 2007. The new figures obtained by ARC suggest that if parent deportation continues at the current rate, ICE will deport more parents in just two years as it did in the previously reported ten year period. (The current figure represents a 400 percent increase in annual removals of parents of U.S. citizens.)” …

“ARC conservatively estimates that there are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care whose parents have been either detained or deported.”

“This means that almost one in four people deported is the parent of a United States citizen child,” Seth Freed Wessler, the report’s chief investigator and author, told The Huffington Post.

The pain of migrant family separation has grown more acute during the Obama years. In the past year, though, the Obama administration has taken modest steps that could slow the trend.

In August 2011, the administration announced that it would begin implementing a memo [PDF] issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton two months earlier, which provides guidance on using “prosecutorial discretion” when determining whom to deport. The memo identifies “low priority” cases and the types of individuals eligible for prosecutorial discretion, including minors brought to the United States when they were young, nursing women, individuals with strong family ties, and individuals without criminal records. An early 2012 regulatory change has sought to reduce the time immediate family members must spend out of the country, away from their loved ones, while they reapply for permanent residency.

2012 statistics might eventually show these changes resulting in fewer family separations. On the other hand, the Obama administration has continued to expand the Secure Communities enforcement program, in which local police share with federal immigration authorities information about all individuals whom they detain or arrest, even for minor crimes. This program nets a large number of “low priority” undocumented migrants.

The result: so far during the Obama years, migrant families have seen growth in the very phenomenon that Rep. Gonzalez warns will happen in a hypothetical Romney administration.

By Adam Isacson

Filed under Deportation Migration Family Separation