- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2015

The renewed flood of illegal immigration children anticipated this year hasn’t materialized, as children are crossing at far lower rates than last year and even lower than 2013, according to new Border Patrol statistics that suggest some of the things the Obama administration did are helping.

Thousands of children are still being caught, but it’s a slower and more regular pace than 2014’s wild spike, which saw 7,700 apprehended at the southwest border in April alone, and more than 10,000 each in May and June. By contrast, this April saw just 3,272 unaccompanied minors caught — a drop of 58 percent year to year.

Through the first seven months of the fiscal year, just 18,919 children were caught total, down from the 36,280 a year earlier at the same time.

Agents accused of abusing the children last year have been cleared, and the government is now even meeting its legal 72-hour deadline for processing the kids at the border and releasing them to social workers, who are quickly placing the children with their relatives or foster families here in the U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has been clear that he’s not declaring mission accomplished yet, but officials are hopeful the downward trend is permanent after taking myriad steps, including stiffer detention rules here at home, a public relations campaign back in Central America and leaning on the governments of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to do more to stanch the flow at their ends.

“It’s a combination of all the things,” Ronald D. Vitiello, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, told The Washington Times.

Last year’s surge dominated headlines in the early summer, and the administration’s efforts to find places to house the children sparked protests in communities across the country, and even forced President Obama to delay his plans to expand his deportation amnesty.

The children, officially dubbed Unaccompanied Alien Children — or UAC in government-speak — came chiefly from three Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They were traveling without their parents, though often were in large groups with siblings and shepherded by “coyotes,” who are paid upwards of $6,000 per head to get them into the U.S., where they were usually pointed toward agents.

As the surge took hold last spring, internal Border Patrol estimates guessed as many as 90,000 children would cross the border in fiscal year 2014, and possibly 120,000 this year.

But it never materialized. By the end of last year, just 68,541 had been caught.

Mr. Johnson said they can pinpoint the exact day — June 10, 2014 — when the spike of children peaked. The numbers fell steadily from then, bottoming out in January, with only slightly more than 2,100 unaccompanied minors caught.

This year the numbers have risen as the weather has improved, but are nowhere near their level of last year. If the current pace holds, fewer than 40,000 will be caught.

Chief Vitiello said the efforts the U.S. made to convince would-be immigrants there were no “permisos,” or free passes, at this end of the journey — and that they could be detained and sent back home — helped.

“Being able to message out to the sending countries and to the individuals that would be coming to the border that there was not a free ride, that they were being exploited by the public perception and the smugglers themselves I think they all recognized that,” the chief said.

Among the other steps the Homeland Security Department took were assigning agents to go after the smuggling networks themselves, in something dubbed Operation Coyote, and working with Central American countries so they are ready to accept their own citizens when the U.S. deports them.

Officials from Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden on down also urged Central American governments to do more to convince their citizens to stay home.

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the numbers are running lower, but there are other parts of the story that aren’t told in those numbers.

“It could be because many more are being interdicted in Mexico and sent home; it could be because more succeeded in getting past the Border Patrol; it could be because the smugglers are laying low; it could be because of more violence in some parts of northern Mexico from the drug cartel mayhem distracting or interrupting the smugglers; it could be because people heard that the president’s big amnesty was blocked in the courts,” Ms. Vaughan said. “Without more information, it’s impossible to know for sure.”

She said a better measure of the government’s response is how many of the children caught in last year’s surge have shown up for their hearings and have been deported.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service said 62 percent of children failed to show up for cases before immigration judges from July through February. All of them were ordered deported, but that is unlikely because deportation officers have been told to focus on other “priority” immigrants.

Ms. Vaughan also said that families crossing — a parent with at least one child — are now as big a problem as the children, and that both populations present major challenges for the communities that have to resettle them.

Last year’s surge was accompanied by an acrimonious debate in the U.S. about the causes. Those who wanted to see a crackdown on illegal immigration blamed Mr. Obama’s policies, saying word got back to Central America about his 2012 deportation amnesty for Dreamers, which was pulling more illegal immigrants here.

Top Obama administration officials and human rights advocates initially dismissed those claims, arguing that the illegal immigrants were being pushed out of Central America by increasing violence.

But the apprehension numbers have dropped this year even though crime rates remain high in the region. Honduras is under a new U.S. State Department crime warning, Guatemala is reporting a continued high murder rate, and El Salvador is seeing a major spike in murders, with March topping a 10-year high, according to news reports from the region.

That bolsters critics who blamed the administration’s policies of releasing most Central American illegal immigrant children and families into the community on the hope — often unrealized — that they would show up for deportation hearings.

Chief Vitiello said they don’t have the ability in hindsight to pinpoint the root of the surge, but he said “clearly violence did drive some of this traffic.” He also said that fellow agencies bolstered their ability to process the children and to detain families, and that word has gotten back to Central America that the journey could end up in a quick turnaround and deportation for some.

“We’d like to make it sustainable and continue that message,” he said.

The flow of children has dropped from each of the three countries. Honduras has seen a major dip, and is running only about a fifth of its rate of last year. El Salvador is a third its previous rate, and Guatemala is about half. Mexico, which has special rules for its unaccompanied children who reach the U.S., is also down.

It’s not just Homeland Security that’s ready for this year. The social workers at Health and Human Services, who take the children once they’re processed by the Border Patrol, say they almost always place children in a facility the same day and find homes for them with relatives or other sponsors within a month.

So far this year, about 15,000 children have been referred to HHS, and 14,000 of them have been placed with sponsors, a department spokesman said.

During last year’s surge, the Border Patrol faced complaints of abuse and mistreatment aimed at some children. The American Civil Liberties Union and several other immigration advocacy groups filed a report with details of 116 illegal immigrant children who said they’d been pushed, kept in cold rooms and denied sleep, or were verbally abused.

Mr. Johnson and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske asked for an internal investigation into the complaints, and the department’s inspector general quickly dismissed most of them as unsubstantiated. Instead, officials found agents and officers made near-heroic efforts to handle the situation, digging into their own pockets to provide toys or clothing for the children, even as they themselves sometimes contracted chicken pox or lice.

The internal investigation into the complaints has apparently been closed. As of Monday, the investigators weren’t looking at the issue anymore, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Vitiello said his agents got a bad rap from the accusations, and said their heroic efforts should be recognized.

“We see people in dire straits on a regular basis, and you can’t serve the American people in this work without having compassion,” he said.

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