Tens of thousands of people from Central America, including many young, unaccompanied children, have crossed our borders illegally this year. We have no clue how many children began the journey and did not make it. It’s a humanitarian crisis. Effectively addressing it requires understanding its root cause.
If we listen, illegal immigrants will tell us: They’ve been led to believe the dangerous and costly journey will pay off.
“I heard in Guatemala that people were caught by immigration, but then they let them go and gave them a permit,” Carmen Ávila, 26, told the New York Times in June. Seven months pregnant, she came with her 4-year-old son. “The word got around and that’s why so many people are coming.”
In fiscal year 2009, U.S. Border Patrol caught 19,668 unaccompanied children entering the country. Approximately 23 percent have been returned to their home countries. By 2011, the number apprehended actually fell to 16,800, with 18.7 percent sent home.
Then in 2012, President Obama issued his Deferred Action on Childhood Admissions policy, which indefinitely suspended deportation for many illegal immigrants brought here as children. Central Americans overlooked the actual details and, instead, were led to believe that if children could get into America, they would be allowed to stay.
In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that included $259 billion of added benefits for non-U.S. citizens and a promise of eventual U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants. These are powerful incentives for Central American parents to hand over thousands of dollars — and their children — to traffickers.
Predictably, child apprehensions have increased: to 24,481 in 2012, 38,833 in 2013, and 57,000 through June of this year. Return rates plunged to 8.6 percent in 2012, 4.3 percent in 2013, and only 2.6 percent so far in 2014.
This May, U.S. Border Patrol agents interviewed unaccompanied children and families apprehended in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, according to a leaked federal report. Of 230 people interviewed, 219 said the primary reason for migrating to the United States was the perception that U.S. immigration laws grant a free pass, or “permiso,” to unaccompanied children or women traveling with children.
The Obama administration vigorously resists the obvious correlation between their policies and increased illegal immigration. This administration’s reflexive response was to ask for more money — $3.7 billion in “emergency” funding. Instead of simply throwing more money at the problem, we must acknowledge the root cause and set an achievable goal designed to attack it.
In the short term, dramatically improving the economy in Central America or ending drug and gang violence there is not realistic. Over the last three years, we have spent $76 billion combating drugs and sent $976 million in economic assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We should acknowledge that after spending huge sums, those problems persist.
A more achievable goal is also more compassionate: stopping or dramatically reducing the flow of children by eliminating incentives that lead parents to send them.
The Democrats who control the Senate, however, did not take this approach. They simply wanted to write the president a $2.7 billion check and hope the problem went away. They did not consider real policy changes to address root causes. They did not allow a full debate and denied all amendments. Several Republican proposals would have gone a long way to eliminate incentives for parents to send children on the perilous journey to the United States. None of these proposals received a vote.
Instead, Harry Reid and Senate Democrats chose to play politics. Because they refused to reform the laws and executive orders that have incentivized illegal immigration, their bill failed. Trying to sweeten the doomed measure, they tacked on support for Israel and spending for forest fire suppression, issues deserving individual pieces of legislation that would easily pass. Political games are a cynical response to these issues — and cruel to Central American children.
Central American parents believe their children can stay if they get here. For most unaccompanied children arriving this year, that has proved true. As long as that remains true, more parents will pay human traffickers a year’s income and subject their children to a dangerous journey atop freight trains, putting them at risk of sexual abuse, violence and death. Harry Reid’s bill may have been clever politics, but it was a far cry from a compassionate response to a serious problem.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is a Republican from Oshkosh.