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."
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.
It's not clear, however, how well the PR campaign will work.
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.
The administration has also promised to add more judges to courts in the southwest so immigrants' claims can be processed faster and they can be deported, if need be. And the Department of Homeland Security is adding 700 more beds to hold illegal immigrant families. Currently, the department has fewer than 100.
That surge in resources has angered immigrant-rights groups, who say it is inhumane.
Some activists plan a rally Thursday outside the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles to urge that country not to stiffen its own security to prevent migrants from crossing, while another group plans an event near the White House next week to try to pressure Mr. Obama.
Even with the new resources, the administration is still falling short. It doesn't even have the space to house all of the children. The military announced earlier this week that the several thousand beds it made available on military bases are full.
Local communities have torpedoed a number of other locations where the government had wanted to warehouse the children.
On Wednesday, Rep. Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania Republican, said he had been informed that the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes the children after they are processed by Homeland Security, won't look for a facility in Pennsylvania.
"This problem has not ended because one group has taken one town or state off its list," Mr. Barletta said. "This is an ongoing problem — with ongoing consequences — and it was foreseeable and preventable."
He and other Republicans say the surge in children and families can be traced back to Mr. Obama's nondeportation policies, which include granting tentative legal status to hundreds of thousands of young adult illegal immigrants and generally halting the danger of deportation for most illegal immigrants in the interior.
But Democrats counter that if House Republicans would take up and pass the Senate bill legalizing illegal immigrants, it could help solve the surge.
"That is because the Senate bill greatly enhances border protection while setting up clear and fair rules for immigrants," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
The Senate bill included tens of billions of dollars to double the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000 and add technology and more fencing. But that border security proved so controversial at the time that when House Democrats wrote their own bill, they dropped all such provisions.
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