Rep. Rob Woodall: Observations from Central America


Rep. Rob Woodall: Observations from Central America

Your Washington – GA 7 – Desk

From Congressman Rob Woodall

Observations from Central America

Border Security and Immigration Reform

Last week I traveled to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to meet with local leaders about the flood of children from those countries who have been detained trying to cross into America without a visa. As you may now, so far this year, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from these three countries have been stopped trying to enter the U.S., and that represents a more than 1,000% increase over the past three years.

The truth is that I’m still trying to digest what I learned, but I would like to share a couple of observations while they are fresh in my mind.

U.S. Border Security is Getting Better. You don’t hear this very often in America, and certainly we all want border security to be even better, but according to human smugglers in Central America, American border security is the best that it has ever been. It is so good, in fact, that smugglers are now offering a “three trips for the price of one” guarantee. That’s right. Smugglers no longer expect to succeed the first time, so they promise to try a second and third try for the former one trip price.

Our successful border security is demonstrated by migration patterns. Today, fewer migrants who are in the U.S. illegally are returning home. In years past, annual trips home to Central America were common, but today, the risk of not being able to get back into the country has grown much higher and fewer migrants are willing to take the risk. (Note that adults stopped close to the border are deported very quickly, often within two weeks. Children are a much harder case that I will discuss later.)

The risk of not being able to reenter America is a costly one. As much as 10% of the population of these small Central American countries live in America today, and as much as 20% of their GDP comes from money sent home from workers in America. That financial life-line is crucial to both the individual families and the individual nations. Instead of the bread winner risking crossing the border to see their family, they are paying smugglers to try to bring their family to America. This explains a part of the recent increase in women and children crossing the border. HHS reports that 55% of the children crossing the border have a parent—not a family member or guardian (that number would be much higher), but a parent—living in the U.S.

I’ve always known that the better we get at border security the more people we’ll keep out. I now know that the better we get at border security the more people we’ll keep in too.

America is sending virtually no unaccompanied minors home. The rumor in these countries is that U.S. law has changed and children are now allowed to stay. That is not the law, of course, but it is easy to see why families would believe that it is. Even though more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained this year, and 20,000 last year, and 10,000 the year before that, these three countries report that fewer than 500 have been sent home this year. DHS reports that the average wait for a hearing is 18 months, so automatically when a child crosses the border they can count on at least 18 months in America as they wait to have their claim adjudicated. What message does it send to the world when 50,000 children leave home and only 500 are sent back? The message is that smuggling works!

Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are prepared to repatriate their children safely. Each country I visited insisted that it wanted its children returned. Each country I visited had constructed large facilities to receive its children. But each facility sat empty as America fails to return these children home. When we take custody of a child at the border, we absolutely take on the responsibility of that child’s health and welfare until the child is returned home. I have talked to several advocacy groups who had concerns about the environment into which the U.S. would be returning these children. Having seen the facilities for these children and the support networks available in these countries, along with the collaborative services that the U.S. is prepared to provide in these countries, I know that repatriation can occur safely and responsibly.

America is making the job of child smugglers easier. The smugglers are already spreading the rumor that America has a new law permitting entry, and the evidence seen by families supports that claim.  As you may know, smugglers no longer need to smuggle a child to New York, for example. They only need to get the child to the U.S. border. Once the child surrenders to law enforcement, the current law requires that the child be detained in the “least restrictive environment” possible until their hearing date. That environment turns out to be their family’s home in New York, so the American government, not the smuggler, arranges travel for the child for the last 2,000 miles of the journey. Smugglers equip children with the script to recite and the name and telephone number of a U.S.-based relative. Obviously, I believe in taking care of children, but I’m appalled that the U.S. government arranges for free what a family paid human smugglers $5,000 to accomplish…but it is the law. By “free,” of course, I mean “free to the family.” The American taxpayer is being billed for every day a child is in custody and travel expenses to move that child to a family.

Violence may be “a driver” but it is not “the driver” of this mass migration. The American media is certainly driving the violence narrative, but in every nation and in every meeting that myth was dispelled. The United Nations is reporting that these nations are getting safer during the very same years that migration is exploding. When these countries interview those who have been repatriated, they report economic opportunity as the primary driver, followed by family reunification, followed third by violence. In Guatemala, for example, the safest but poorest area of the country, the Western Highlands, accounts for the bulk of all the Guatemalan migration to the U.S.

This is the beginning of this conversation, not the end. We can’t solve all of these issues today, but we can get started. The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would make a big difference. Primarily, it would prohibit the President from further confusing the issue with additional unilateral changes to immigration policy, it would speed the return of children to their home country to dispel the myth that a new pathway exists, and it would debit the foreign aid account to pay for repatriation. Unfortunately, while the President has rightly decided to forego new, unilateral, executive actions that would make the flood of immigrant children to the United States even worse, it’s telling that his decision was based on political calculus instead of a principled stand against breaking the law. What’s worse is that the President is going to do nothing about the situation until after the November election. As such, this untenable situation of children being trafficked thousands of miles will continue unabated until the President finally calls on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring the House bill to a vote.

We are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. We needn’t choose between the two; America can and must be both.

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