WASHINGTON — “We have to secure our borders,” Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in his opening remarks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, “not just for the illegal immigration issue, but for national security, for public health and safety. This is a serious matter; it deserves serious attention.”
Wednesday’s hearing was the 12th hearing the committee has held on the lack of security at America’s borders. The purpose of the hearing was to assess the ongoing illegal migration from Central America and to address the incentives that underlie it.
“In fiscal year 2014, the border patrol apprehended 66,000 unaccompanied children, primarily in the Rio Grande Valley,” Chris Cabrera, a border patrol agent from the Rio Grande Valley sector, said, testifying on behalf of the National Border Patrol Council. “Although the apprehensions of UACs are down 50 percent in fiscal year 2015, this is no cause for celebration. We will still apprehend 30,000 unaccompanied children this year and an additional 40,000 in family groups.”
An increase in the use of social media to attract Central American families is one root cause, Kimberly M. Gianopoulos, director of International Affairs and Trade for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified. “Social media outlets enable migrants who arrive in the United States to share messages and pictures with families in their home countries. This can serve as a powerful and influential endorsement of the decision to migrate.”
Another root cause is America’s current “catch-and-release policy.” Cabrera testified from his experience interviewing detained families and unaccompanied children that “most believe they will not be caught or even if they are caught, they will not be deported back to their home country.” They are acutely aware that U.S. authorities will not hold them until they are adjudicated, Cabrera said, and until that changes, they will continue to come.
Witnesses agreed that violence, instability and corruption are another root cause.
“How far are we away from having low enough levels of corruption and a strong enough rule of law to actually provide the type of economic activity to provide the opportunities that are really lacking in Central America?” Johnson asked Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow and program director in the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program for Inter-American Dialogue. He added, “I don’t think it’s good for Central America that those individuals that actually want to seek opportunity flow out of the country. I think the goal of our policy should be to stop the flow.”
“The short answer is [we are] very far from that,” Casas-Zamora responded.
Johnson cited Casas-Zamora’s earlier testimony about the importance to Central America of remittances from citizens who have gone to the United States. “That’s a pretty powerful incentive to have more people leave to take advantage of the wage differential, take advantage of this land of opportunity, to fund their economy,” Johnson said.
“That’s one of the crucial questions here. It is a powerful incentive,” Casas-Zamora said. “The only way to counter that is to generate alternative sources of opportunity in the country. To tell you the truth, that’s not easy.”
“That requires the rule of law,” Johnson replied.
“They’re losing their best and their brightest, and it’s tragic,” said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, testifying on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Also testifying at the hearing was Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“The good news is we actually share the same goal — we all want everybody to have the opportunity to build a good life for themselves and their families,” Johnson said after the hearing. “There’s not one party that has a monopoly on compassion, and I think we saw that here today.”