Smuggling cartels are making at least $500 million a year bringing migrants into the U.S., Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress on Tuesday, outlining the scope of the problem for lawmakers as illegal border crossings continue to surge.
Ms. Nielsen took a firm stand on the causes of the surge, saying economies in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are growing and homicide rates are falling, suggesting the push factors back home should be easing. Instead, she said, the booming U.S. economy and lax American laws are enticing the flow northward.
That contradicts the narrative offered by immigrant rights activists, who have said violence in Central America has spawned the wave of illegal immigrants over the past few months, erasing gains made during President Trump’s early weeks in office and sending the rates of illegal immigration back up to the levels seen under President Obama.
“We do face a crisis,” the secretary told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a hearing called to review her department’s budget and policies.
The $500 million figure paid by illegal immigrants to smuggling cartels appeared to be the first time a federal official has put a dollar amount on that particular activity.
Homeland Security declined to provide the numbers behind the calculation, but the department last year said migrants were paying an average of $8,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. — up significantly from a few years ago. Mexicans generally pay lower rated, and those from Asian countries often pay $25,000 or more for the trip.
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Court documents show Central Americans pay a rate close to the $8,000 average Homeland Security cited last year.
The money is split among the “coyotes,” or guides, who shepherd the migrants through Central America and Mexico to the border; the stash house operators and smugglers who transport them to their final destinations in the U.S.; and the major cartels that oversee all sides of the operation.
“To be clear — human smuggling operations are lining the pockets of transnational criminals. They are not humanitarian endeavors,” Ms. Nielsen said. Smugglers prioritize profit over people. And when aliens pay them to get here, they are contributing $500 million a year — or more — to groups that are fueling greater violence and instability in America and the region.”
That income is still substantially less than the amount of money the cartels make smuggling drugs, which totals billions of dollars a year, according to various government estimates.
Ms. Nielsen said migrants should forgo the illegal route and come to the U.S. legally, or not at all. For those fleeing horrid conditions at home in Central America and hoping to make asylum claims, she said, they should apply in the first safe country they reach — usually Mexico — rather than subject themselves to the dangers of the journey.
“This is not and should not be a partisan political issue. The past four presidents have pleaded with Congress to act on this security challenge,” she said. “But this administration is tired of waiting.”
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Ms. Nielsen has announced a zero-tolerance policy at the border, saying every person attempting to illegally enter the U.S. or to make a bogus asylum claim will be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.
That plan, still in its infancy, is experiencing some hiccups. Agents told The Washington Times that prosecutors are declining to take some cases, saying they lack the capacity to handle the increased workload.
Democrats, meanwhile, have called the plan cruel. They say it will mean mothers who cross with their children will be prosecuted and separated from their children.
“They come here because their lives are not just difficult; in many cases their lives are horrendous,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat.
His fellow Democrats peppered Ms. Nielsen with questions about how families are being treated, whether Border Patrol agents are trained to minimize child trauma from the separation and the conditions those in custody are subjected to.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat, introduced legislation Tuesday that would prevent Homeland Security from opening or expanding any more detention facilities and would impose more oversight on existing facilities.
She said people in detention face sexual abuse, pregnant women are denied care, and migrants can’t get in touch with lawyers. Some migrants have died in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“ICE’s indiscriminate approach to immigration enforcement continues to sow fear and anxiety in communities across the nation, and strict oversight is long-overdue,” Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Nielsen’s department is also battling charges of selective prosecution stemming from its handling of the migrant caravan that brought hundreds of people from Central America to the U.S. doorstep last month.
In court filings this week, the Border Patrol said it targeted caravan migrants who jumped the border for prosecution, hoping to send a signal to the other caravan members to attempt to enter through an official port of entry.
The Border Patrol said it arrested 24 people in the San Diego region who appeared to have some ties to the caravan and filed charges against 11 of them. The others were either mothers with children, juveniles or, in one case, a woman who said she was 8½ months pregnant.
Defense attorneys for some of the caravan migrants have argued that the administration went after them because they were from Central America. The lawyers pointed to others, including three people from India, who were caught alongside the Central Americans but who weren’t charged.
The Border Patrol said that mischaracterized the operations because the people from India were never part of the caravan.
“At no point did Border Patrol target citizens of Central American countries for prosecution because of their nationality. To the contrary, Border Patrol sought prosecution of caravan participants with the objective of deterring other caravan participants from illegally entering the United States, while also taking into consideration humanitarian concerns,” Ryan Yamasaki, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol in San Diego, said in a declaration to the court.
All told, the Border Patrol nabbed 232 people in the San Diego region who weren’t part of the caravan and who didn’t face prosecution from April 27 to April 29, Mr. Yamasaki said in his declaration to the court.