John Burnett, WCQS, May 31, 2016
Immigrants fleeing gang violence in Central America are again surging across the U.S.-Mexico border, approaching the numbers that created an immigration crisis in the summer of 2014. While the flow of immigrants slowed for much of last year, nothing the U.S. government does seems to deter the current wave of travelers.
Immigration officials opened controversial family detention camps in south Texas. They publicized immigration roundups earlier this year, with more to come. A big U.S. public relations campaign is under way in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, warning would-be immigrants they are not welcome. And recently, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Central America to say it in person.
“I am here today to send a message that our borders in the United States are not open to irregular migration,” he said.
But that message isn’t getting through.
That’s apparent in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. Every day, it’s full of young mothers and children who’ve been released by the U.S. Border Patrol. They get a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal and supplies. Sister Norma Pimentel is director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the shelter.
Today, the government has new family holding facilities, and unaccompanied kids are sent to well-staffed church camps.
Yet the numbers are daunting. From last October to March, the U.S. Border Patrol averaged 330 apprehensions of Central Americans a day, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, an increase of 100 percent over the same time period a year earlier.
While the swelling numbers don’t seem to alarm the Homeland Security Department, its border officers are clearly frustrated. Two weeks ago, the agents’ union president, Brandon Judd, testified at a congressional hearing.
“What happens is if you are arrested in the United States and you ask for any sort of asylum, what we do is we will process you, and we will walk you right out our front door, give you a pat on the back and say, ‘Welcome to the United States.’ And they’re good to go,” he said.
The Border Patrol ends up releasing the vast majority of family members it apprehends because U.S. court rulings restrict its ability to detain them.
Chris Cabrera is a Border Patrol officer and union official in south Texas. He says all the families surrendering to seek asylum are distracting his member agents, when they should be chasing drug and human traffickers.
“Our agents are so caught up with rounding up the ones that are turning themselves in, corralling them and getting them to the station, that we don’t have adequate resources to get the ones that are trying to get away,” Cabrera says.
The official stressed that the U.S. message hasn’t changed: Don’t come. If you do and your asylum claims are denied, we will remove you.
But inside the Catholic immigrant shelter on the border, no one seems to pay much attention to the government’s tough talk.
Central Americans risk the journey because they know most of them will be admitted at the U.S. border and not locked up, as are immigrants from Mexico who cross illegally.