Smuggling cartels are using the surge of illegal immigrant children as a smoke screen to distract the Border Patrol, leaving gaps in security that the gangs then use to slip more drugs or known criminals into the country, the chief of the Border Patrol's labor union will tell Congress on Wednesday.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said that the cartels are taking advantage of U.S. laws, which require special treatment for the children. He said nearly 40 percent of Border Patrol manpower has been shifted to manage the children, leaving the cartels with a free hand to conduct their other criminal activities.
"The cartels purposely cross between ports of entry to tie up Border Patrol manpower, creating holes in our enforcement and facilitating their other lines of business, such as drug smuggling and the smuggling of known criminals into the U.S. Make no mistake, this is big business for the cartels," Mr. Judd said in testimony he will deliver Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, immigration agents who used to focus on fugitive criminals within the U.S. interior have also been pulled off the job and sent to help with processing the illegal immigrant children, according to Christopher Crane, the union chief for interior enforcement personnel.
The revelations come as the Obama administration continues to try to gain a handle on the surge of children, which top officials say is swamping their efforts and leaving them playing catch-up — and in the process breaking a federal law that requires the children to be turned over to social workers within three days.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson admitted Tuesday he was stumped by the surge, acknowledging that conditions in Central America have been poor for some time and cannot account for the spike in recent months, which has seen more than 10,000 unaccompanied children cross the border and beg agents to apprehend them.
"I'm not sure I have the answer to that question," he told the House Committee on Homeland Security.
As the government tries to get a handle on the surge, which could see as many as 90,000 illegal immigrant children traveling without parents caught this year and 140,000 caught next year, the causes are a critical question.
Republicans say the Obama administration must acknowledge its own policies of halting deportations for most illegal immigrants already in the U.S. have contributed to the problem.
"What is new is a series of executive actions by the administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law and a relaxed enforcement posture," said House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican.
Mr. Johnson initially said the chief reason the kids were coming was "the push factor" of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. But under questioning from Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, Mr. Johnson acknowledged those conditions have been bad for some time.
Mr. Johnson then said part of the problem is that smugglers are lying to children and families, telling them that if they can get to the U.S. they can get a "permiso" or "free pass." Mr. Johnson said that's a misunderstanding of the law, which requires the children be given an immigration court summons, or Notice to Appeal (NTA) — which the families believe to be a free pass.
Mr. King countered that since the children are being turned over to families in the U.S. and given a chance to fight deportation and potentially disappear into the shadows, that may look like a good option to a Central American family.
"If I were a parent in Guatemala, wouldn't I see that as a free pass?" Mr. King said. "To me it is a free pass in that respect."
After initially focusing on the humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of children, Mr. Johnson has recently taken steps to beef up enforcement and to try to deter families and children from crossing in the first place.
On Tuesday, he said he's already shifted 115 experienced agents from elsewhere to help cover parts of the southwest border and said he's considering shifting another 150.
Mr. Johnson also said his department is intensifying its public relations campaign south of the border to urge parents not to subject their children to the harrowing journey north and to try to dispel rumors that children will be eligible for legal status.
The secretary will travel to Nogales, Arizona, on Wednesday to get yet another firsthand look at the situation on the U.S. side and will travel to Guatemala next month to try to hammer out agreements to smooth the path to return children to Central America.
Meanwhile, the administration has added 60 criminal investigators to the border region to try to target smugglers.
All sides agree the smuggling cartels are spreading rumors of "permisos" in order to drum up business.
Under U.S. law, illegal immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. without parents and who are from noncontiguous countries cannot be immediately returned. Instead they are turned over to social workers, who try to place them with their own families or in foster care while they await a final decision from an immigration court.
Mr. Judd, the Border Patrol union chief, said the cartels are aware that all of those steps are overwhelming the U.S. system, and he said the gangs are exploiting that to cover their other activities.
He said if the cartels were only interested in smuggling the children in, it would be easier for them to send the children to the U.S. through official ports of entry, where they would be met by Customs and Border Protection officers.
Instead, the cartels ferry the children across the Rio Grande, drop them off and point them toward areas where the Border Patrol operates — a clear signal, Mr. Judd said, that they intend to overwhelm and distract agents from their regular patrol duties.
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