BANGOR, Maine — Returning from a tour of immigration facilities on the Texas-Mexico border, both Maine’s U.S. senators criticized the Obama administration for failing to stem misinformation that has led tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children to the U.S. border.
“I’ve called on the administration to make much clearer that these children, for the most part, will be sent home,” Sen. Susan Collins said during a Saturday morning news conference in Bangor.
Collins and Sen. Angus King said the president should have been more forceful in spreading the message to Central American families that sending their children to the U.S. border wouldn’t mean guaranteed entry and would likely mean the vast majority of them would eventually be sent home. Though both said there was plenty of blame to spread around, and much of it could fall outside the U.S.
This rush also shouldn’t have been a surprise, they argued.
In 2009, the U.S. caught about 20,000 children under the age of 18 trying to cross the border on their own. That number dipped to about 16,000 by 2011. In those years, the vast majority of children were coming from Mexico. In 2012, there was a seismic shift. While the number of Mexican children trying to cross the border on their own has stayed relatively steady in the past five years, the number of children trying to enter from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has skyrocketed.
The numbers jumped to about 25,500 in 2012, increasing to 38,800 the year after. This year, the roughly 58,000 undocumented, unaccompanied children trying to enter the U.S. is a relatively even split among the four countries.
Collins said she organized the Texas trip so bipartisan lawmakers could get a clearer picture of what caused this “humanitarian crisis.” Seven senators, including Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent, visited the U.S. Border Patrol’s McAllen Station in South Texas, Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center, Hidalgo International Bridge and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
“It’s such a complex issue, and it really helps to see it and talk to people dealing with it on the ground,” King said.
The senators described these facilities as “adequate,” “clean,” “safe,” and “Spartan.” Children are fed well, receive vaccinations and medical treatment, and even take English classes, according to Collins.
While the White House might have been able to do more to dispel immigration myths spread to Central American families, that isn’t where the brunt of blame should be aimed, the senators said in separate interviews on Saturday. The real culprits are Central American gangs and human smugglers promising to aid children in their journey to the U.S. border — for a price.
These smugglers, known as Coyotes, offer their services to families often at a cost of $5,000-$8000, according to Collins. They apparently reassure the families that once the children reach the border, they’ll be allowed to cross into the U.S. and find work and support without incident. But that’s not reality. It serves to boost the cartels’ income and influence, while the children ultimately get held up at the border and are eventually turned home.
The U.S. should counter these efforts with a strong campaign to spread the word in these countries that the cartels and smugglers are lying to them.
Collins and King said they were surprised by many things they learned on the trip. For example, 75-80 percent of the unaccompanied children are teenagers, likely coming to the U.S. in hopes of earning money to help their families or trying to escape gang violence, according to Collins. Still, that means there likely have been more than 10,000 unaccompanied children under age 13 trying to enter the U.S.
King was surprised when border control officials told him the number of children flowing into the facilities has dropped dramatically in the past month — by more than two-thirds.
A number of factors could be playing into that. Central American families could be catching wind that the United States is sending people back or preventing them from entering the country. Or it could just mean that the heat is preventing people from making the long journey through Mexico and the numbers could see a resurgence in the fall if steps aren’t taken to stem the tide, King said.
Lawmakers and the Obama administration are still trying to figure out how to process the children and determine which and how many children might be allowed to stay.
The key, the senators agreed, is speeding up the immigration court process, where there is a backlog of some 375,000 cases and an average wait of 525 days, according to Collins.
King said he would like to see exploration of what it would cost for the U.S. to bulk up its number of federal judges overseeing immigration and asylum cases to clear the backlog and shorten adjudication wait times.
Collins and King also agree lawmakers should take a fresh look at a 2008 law, which was aimed at stemming human trafficking practices. It established different deportation procedures for people from Central America than people from places such as Canada or Mexico. Mexicans and Canadians can be deported within a few days, whereas the process for Central Americans can drag on for months or years.
“This is a clear example of a well-intentioned law that has had unanticipated consequences,” Collins said. “There is no rationale for treating a teenager from Mexico who comes to our country differently from a teenager from Honduras.”
Neither senator said they believed at this point that the law should be repealed outright, but that amendments and changes should be explored.
The Obama administration has proposed a $3.7 billion spending plan to help the border patrol and Department of Health and Human Services cover the dramatic increase in spending they’ve seen as they’ve tried to respond to the influx of children. King and Collins both believe that’s far too high, but aren’t sure what the right number is.
A bill passed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday calls for about $700 million in additional funding. The right number likely falls somewhere in between, Collins said.
Collins and King said the U.S. should work with Mexican officials to ensure their southern borders are secure because it’s clear that they have been ineffective in preventing migration through Mexico into the U.S.
King said the U.S. also could collaborate with Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to resolve social and economic issues that are driving families to send their children away.