Illegal immigrants from Central America are surging across the U.S.-Mexico border because they believe they can take advantage of American immigration policy and gain at least a tentative foothold in the country, according to an internal Border Patrol intelligence memo.
The immigrants come seeking "permisos," which apparently are the "notices to appear," the legal documents given to non-Mexicans caught at the border, according to the memo, which was viewed by The Washington Times and raised several times Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Those notices officially put the immigrants into deportation proceedings. The immigrants usually are released to await a court date, giving them a chance to fade into the shadows in the interior of the U.S.
"This information is apparently common knowledge in Central America and is spread by word of mouth and international and local media," the memo reads. "A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the U.S. urged them to travel immediately, because the United States government was only issuing immigration 'permisos' until the end of June 2014."
Agents on May 28 interviewed more than 200 non-Mexicans who were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, asking why they came to the U.S. and whether they had family in the country.
The memo conflicts with the Obama administration's public stance that the surge of unaccompanied minors and young women with families is a result of spiking violence in Central America, not lax enforcement in the U.S.
"These are countries which are experiencing a great deal of violence. What we hear from the children themselves is violence," a senior administration official told reporters this week.
The Border Patrol memo cites multiple reasons, including a rise in gang-related violence back home, but says the main factor is the rumor of a free pass in the U.S.
"Although economic and security concerns also influenced their decision to travel to the U.S., the issuance of 'permisos' to family units was the primary reason for leaving their countries," the memo says. "The subjects also indicated that 'everyone' in their home countries is aware that 'permisos' are being issued to family units in south Texas."
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, testifying to the Judiciary Committee, was asked repeatedly about the memo but told lawmakers he hadn't seen it. He did, however, dispute its conclusions.
"I'm not sure I agree that that is the motivator for the children coming into south Texas. I think it is primarily the conditions they are leaving from," he said.
He also acknowledged that some of the border jumpers may be motivated by "uncertainty" stemming from U.S. policy and the bill the Senate passed last year that would grant legal status to most illegal immigrants in the U.S. — though not to recent arrivals.
Mr. Johnson said the solution is for House lawmakers to pass the Senate bill.
"I do believe that if comprehensive immigration reform is passed, then the uncertainty that may be existing in people's minds about our law will be resolved," he said.
All sides of the immigration debate say the situation with the children is untenable.
"This intelligence report confirms what many experienced observers had feared and warned of — that not only the talk of amnesty, but also the reality that illegal crossers have been allowed to stay, is causing Central Americans and who knows who else to abandon their homes and risk their lives to take advantage of our lax policies," said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for the Center for Immigration Studies.
Civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates Wednesday filed a 25-page complaint with the Homeland Security Department about the treatment of some of the children in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The complaint details dozens of stories from children who say they were denied food or water, insulted or threatened by officers, denied the chance to make an asylum claim, and physically abused.
"More than half reported the denial of medical care, including two young mothers whose infant children became sick while detained in freezing temperatures, and another child whose asthma medication was confiscated while she suffered multiple asthma attacks," the advocacy groups wrote. "Children consistently reported being held in unsanitary, overcrowded and freezing-cold cells, and roughly 70 percent reported being held beyond the legally mandated 72-hour period."
Although the Obama administration labels the flow of children a "humanitarian" crisis rather than an enforcement problem, Mr. Johnson said he has directed agents to go after the smuggling networks that control the traffic across the border and are thought to be responsible for encouraging Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans to cross the U.S. border.
He also said the U.S. needs a "robust" public relations campaign to discourage Central Americans from attempting the journey and to warn of the dangers along the way.
Some Republicans said Mr. Johnson and President Obama need to send a clear message.
"The president needs to state unequivocally those who come here will not be able to stay, that they will not qualify under [Deferred Action] or under any other program, and any deportation policy review will not contemplate allowing them to stay," said Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. "That would be, I would think, incredibly helpful. And if you could relay that message back to the president, we're trying to do so as well."
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