Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Longmire worked for four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and Mexico’s drug war. She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and she is an award-winning columnist for Homeland Security Today magazine and contributing editor for Breitbart Texas. Longmire was a guest expert on The History Channel’s “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded,” and has consulted for the producers of National Geographic Channel’s Border Wars and Drugs, Inc. series. Her first book, Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and she has written for numerous peer-reviewed journals and online publications. Her newest book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer was published in April 2014. For more, check out her website.
On the morning of June 18, 2014, roughly two dozen reporters gathered outside a Nogales warehouse and waited to be escorted inside by Border Patrol agents. Many were anxious; it was the first time members of the media would be allowed to witness firsthand the hundreds of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) being detained by the agency after being apprehended in south Texas.
Since October 2013, Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors, ranging in age from infant to 17 years old, in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. The vast majority of these children are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and they are all anxious to be reunited with family members in the United States. For some of them, the journey has been incredibly difficult—paying coyotes thousands of dollars in smuggling fees, eating and sleeping little, and navigating the gang- and cartel-infested territories in eastern Mexico. For some, the goal is to cross the border undetected and reach various destinations across the country.
But others are traveling right to the border and turning themselves in to agents under the impression—fueled by rumors at home—that they will soon be released. In many cases, they’re right.
Undocumented immigrants from Central America get treated differently by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because it’s logistically more difficult to repatriate them. Also, UACs from Central America get treated differently than adults. By law, they have to be processed and handed over to the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which will try to reunite them with a family member or legal in the US as quickly as possible. Generally, the legal status of the person a UAC is released to does not impact the transfer of the child. UACs without a family member in the US get placed into the ORR’s network of shelters and group homes—essentially foster care—while they go through removal proceedings.
The reporters went into that Nogales warehouse hoping to get some answers about what President Obama and others have termed a “humanitarian crisis” on the border. For two weeks, they have been seeing photos—many of them leaked by Border Patrol agents—of the crowded conditions inside, and the experience was jarring for many. Several reporters expressed their thoughts on their Twitter feeds, describing the minors’ moods as ranging from bored to sad to outright distraught. UACs are only supposed to be detained for a maximum of 72 hours before being transferred to ORR custody, but the huge influx of minors in such a short period of time have made it logistically impossible for that to happen.
Given that this is a crisis that will not be ending or get resolved soon, two questions persist: What caused this huge influx, and how can it be controlled? Both questions are naturally fraught with political complications. Many on the right point the finger at lax enforcement of immigration policies by the Obama administration and a failure to secure the border. Many on the left fully blame the deteriorating security and economic conditions in Central America, which have led to the rise in control of many parts of those countries by gangs and drug cartels.
The truth is not always that simple, and in this case, it’s a combination of both of those factors—a sort of push-pull effect. Violence and a lack of economic and educational opportunities drive young people out of Central America by the thousands. But word has gotten around the region—in some cases, through television announcements—that many UACs, and even adults, are being released after processing and just being told to show up for their immigration hearing. Most will not. In addition, those with family members already in the US will be provided with bus fare to be reunited with them anywhere in the country. To say that word of mouth about these actions don’t have a “pull” effect is naïve and ignorant of the power rumors can have in Central America.
As far as controlling the push and pull factors, the latter is much easier than the former. Even though the US government has been providing counterdrug and economic development assistance to Central America for some time, security has not improved and economic development can be difficult to measure. One also has to add in the fact that US drug demand, which fuels the activities of cartels and the gangs they employ, is not diminishing, and corruption within governments and police forces in these countries is rampant.
The only thing left is to find a way to manage the pull factor—the controversial issue known as comprehensive immigration reform. The increase in border enforcement measures that the US government can reasonably sustain will be insufficient to stop determined migrants fleeing violence and poverty, as difficult a pill that may be for some to swallow. Changing immigration laws in a way that doesn’t grant automatic amnesty, but preserves the integrity of our justice system, is entirely possible. However, US politicians lack the political will to reach some sort of compromise that allows non-criminal “economic migrants” to contribute to the US economy and travel freely—and safely—between their home country and the US.
There is no simple answer, but there is also not one single acceptable answer. There is a halfway point between granting full amnesty to all undocumented immigrants and walling off the border while deporting every single one. A meaningful change at the legislative level and a very visible change at the border enforcement level will help spread an accurate message to desperate Central Americans—and the smugglers who exploit them—that although the US border isn’t open for business, a new way of following practical and effective rules is the best way to reach the safety of the United States.