- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The federal government launched a major public relations campaign Wednesday to try to urge Central Americans not to send their children to the U.S. as illegal immigrants, vowing to press that message through radio ads and billboards in those countries and interviews with Spanish-language press in the U.S.

The billboards tell parents it’s not true that their children can get papers signifying legal status in the U.S. — an attempt to push back against the prevailing belief among some in Central America that if they can cross the U.S. border, they can stay.

“I thought it would be easy for my son to get his papers in the USA. That wasn’t true,” one of the new posters says. “Our children are the future. Protect them.”

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The public relations campaign marks an admission by the Obama administration that the surge of children crossing the border is caused, at least in part, by U.S. immigration policy. Top officials initially argued that the problem was a spike in violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and that U.S. policy had little to do with the surge.

Radio and television public service announcements will run about 6,500 times over the next two months in the three Central American countries and Mexico. The administration has also printed 273 posters to use in bus shelters and on billboards and road signs across the region.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske says the PR campaign is necessary to help Central American parents understand that sending their children to the U.S. will not earn them "permisos," or free passes to remain in the U.S. (ASsociated PRess)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske says the PR campaign ... more >

It’s not clear, however, how well the PR campaign will work.

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One key problem is that what the U.S. considers its punishment for illegal immigrant children from Central America — issuing them a Notice to Appear, or NTA, which puts them in court proceedings that last for years — is the exact same document illegal immigrants call a “permiso,” or free pass, because it allows them into the country — at least temporarily.

“Families need to understand that the journey north has become much more treacherous and there are no ‘permisos’ for those crossing the border illegally,” said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske in announcing the new PR campaign.

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the message could help if it’s run broadly enough.

“It depends. Do they put up a couple of billboards, or are they really getting the word out on radio, on television and just sending this massive kind of message?” she said.

But she cautioned that the PR campaign won’t address the structural issues of violence and poverty — what analysts call the “push factors” — that are spurring the children to flee.

The campaign comes as President Obama faces pressure to get more personally involved. Texas Gov. Rick Perry invited Mr. Obama to come tour the border in his state, which is where most of the illegal immigrant children are crossing.

The White House rejected that suggestion, saying the solution is to enact a legalization bill to legalize most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

“The most important thing [people in border states] can do is not to offer public invitations but to lend their public support to comprehensive immigration reform,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

While it was slow to ramp up its efforts, the Obama administration is now in full crisis mode, having moved hundreds of U.S. Border Patrol agents to the southwest to handle the surge of families and unaccompanied children and to fill in the slots left unpatrolled along the border as other agents are pulled in to process the illegal immigrants already caught.

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