Top Obama officials on Monday rejected accusations that their policies have invited the surge of young children trying to jump the U.S.-Mexico border and enter the country illegally, saying the cause is violence in Central America, not the promise of legal status here.
But the president of the Border Patrol union for Tucson, which is processing many of the children and families flooding across the border, said the agents tell him the surge was caused by rumors of an impending amnesty reaching back to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“We talk to these individuals — the agents ask what made you do it. The general answer that we’re getting from a lot of these individuals is, we heard there was going to be an amnesty,” said Art Del Cueto, president of Local 2544.
He said Border Patrol agents have been pulled from their regular assignments to perform “guard duty and baby-sitting and stuff like that,” and said it’s distracting them from being able to combat drug smugglers, human traffickers and other illegal immigrants.
“Any time you remove somebody from the field and you put them in another position, you’re going to weaken that defense,” said Mr. Del Cueto.
Homeland Security Department internal estimates predict more than 90,000 “unaccompanied alien children,” or UAC as they are known in government-speak, will be caught on the U.S. border this year, and 140,000 will be apprehended next year. That doesn’t account for those that evade capture.
Most of those are being caught in the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas, but some are now being sent to Arizona to be processed, which is where the agents Mr. Cueto represents come into the picture.
The Obama administration has declared the surge a “humanitarian situation” and has focused its efforts on trying to manage the children when they arrive in the U.S. Officials are searching for space to house the children and are trying to recruit lawyers to represent them in the immigration system.
“Our focus has been on making sure we get these kids in proper care and proper placement. That is where the energy is going in the federal government,” a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.
The surge is so overwhelming that officials conceded they are not able to meet the law that requires Homeland Security to turn the children over to Health and Human Services workers within 72 hours of their arrival.
While they’re grappling with the children here, the administration has yet to offer a plan for how to cut down on the number trying to cross.
Instead, officials argue the situation is largely beyond their control, and blame increased violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala for the increased crossings. Indeed, the official, who insisted on anonymity to speak to reporters, contradicted the Mr. Del Cueto’s claim, saying that the reports coming back to Washington point to violence, not to any promise of amnesty.
“These are countries which are experiencing a great deal of violence. What we hear from the children themselves is violence,” the official said.
The official said the fact that just three countries are sparking the surge, as opposed to a general increase from Latin America, is proof that neither the immigration debate in the U.S. nor Mr. Obama’s own unilateral moves to grant tentative legal status for some illegal immigrants have caused the spike.
The official also said that though they are turned over to relatives or foster families in the U.S., and some of them can apply for legal status, they are still subject to deportation, which should serve as a deterrent to more people trying to cross.