Editor’s note: This is the written testimony of Federalist senior correspondent John Daniel Davidson, delivered before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
About this time last year, I visited a migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville. Sister Norma Pimentel helped establish the center in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied minor crisis, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was overwhelmed with thousands of children and teenagers turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
At that time, the center was receiving between 60 and 120 migrants a day, nearly all of them families from Central America. Here’s how it worked: Every afternoon, ICE dropped off the families at the Greyhound bus station downtown, about a mile from the respite center. Greyhound employees would call the center to let them know the migrants were there, and the center would send vans to pick them up.
Once at the center, the children would be sent to a separate room for a hot meal while the parents took turns working with volunteers to get in touch with friends and family members all over the country. The goal was to get them all bus tickets and get them on their way that same day, usually later that evening, because the next day there would be another group of families coming in, and there simply wasn’t space for more than a couple dozen people to spend the night there.
This wasn’t some gleaming facility. The center occupied one half of a run-down commercial building, consisting of a large multipurpose room, a bathroom and a shower, a small kitchen, and a separate room for the makeshift cafeteria. There was an area in a corner of the main room cordoned off for young children to play and a large stack of blue plastic mattresses in another corner. Staffed by a dozen or so volunteers daily, the center wasn’t exactly a “shelter,” but it was a non-stop hive of activity, operating at capacity nearly every day.
In December, the diocese moved the center to a larger location, a former nursing home, about 16,000 square-feet—many times larger than the old respite center. That’s because the number of migrants turning up at the bus station skyrocketed. Today, the new respite center is receiving about 800 people a day, sometimes more. Last Sunday, 1,300 people were dropped off there and at other shelters around town.
(Overwhelmed by the number of migrants, Greyhound no longer allows ICE to drop people off at their stations. These are families that have been processed and discharged with orders to appear before an immigration judge, but once ICE drops them off, they’re on their own. According to the Flores agreement, children can’t be detained for more than 20 days, and because the Trump administration ended its family separation policy, parents and children are now being discharged together as fast as ICE can process them.)
McAllen, a city of fewer than 150,000 residents, is now facing the prospect of thousands of migrants discharged from ICE custody, wandering the streets and sleeping in doorways and on park benches—the city’s mayor has said as much. What’s more, in February the city ordered Catholic Charities to vacate the former nursing home and find a new location within 90 days, citing complaints from neighbors about constant traffic and strangers wandering nearby streets where children play. By any measure, the situation in McAllen is an emergency.
This is just one border town in Texas. Something similar is playing out all up and down the U.S.-Mexico border. In El Paso, hundreds of migrant families are turning themselves in to Border Patrol every day, overwhelming federal facilities and personnel. In a five-minute stretch one day in late March, Border Patrol apprehended two different groups totaling 400 people. On the night of President Trump’s rally in El Paso in February, a group of 300 turned themselves in to the Santa Teresa Border Patrol station, which sits on an empty stretch of New Mexico scrubland 22 miles west of El Paso. Agents had to move all the ATVs out of the garage just so a hundred or so migrants would have someplace warm to sleep that night. Since then, things have been getting worse.
Even smaller and relatively remote communities in Texas are seeing large groups of migrant families turn themselves in. Recently, a group of nearly 60 was apprehended near the port of entry in Eagle Pass, Texas. In February, a group of 90 was apprehended in the tiny town of Quemado, Texas, population 230. That group included children as young as one year old, as well as a pregnant woman who, upon arrival, went into labor and later gave birth.
As mass numbers of migrants are being released from federal custody along the border, cities further inland have also begun to feel the effects. During the third week of March, about 1,000 migrants arrived in San Antonio after taking buses north from various points in the Rio Grande Valley. Catholic Charities and other non-profit groups are struggling to house and feed these people, and in many cases have appealed to municipal authorities for assistance.
It’s important to understand what the reality is on the ground in these places. The migrant shelters now going up in Texas border towns are, like the former nursing home in McAllen, in most cases makeshift and temporary. The process and logistics are haphazard and fluid. No one is really in control.
Among Trespassers Seeking Asylum, a Constant Pattern
If you spend enough time talking to migrants themselves, a pattern begins to emerge. Most of them have similar stories about why they left their home countries in Central America, and they report similar experiences of how they made their way through Mexico to the southern U.S. border. A few common characteristics stand out:
- A majority of the “family units” are men traveling with one or more children;
- Many of these men say they have a wife and other children back in their home country and that they intend to secure work in the U.S. and send money back to support them;
- They are headed for all points across the U.S. and have family members or friends in those places. Many of them also have jobs already lined up;
- Nearly all of them say they left their homes because it is dangerous, citing gang violence, threats, extortion, etc.; they are all claiming asylum.
- At the same time, many of them will admit that they don’t plan to remain in the U.S. permanently, and in fact have a set amount of time they plan to live and work here before returning home;
- All of them say they paid a smuggler to secure safe passage to the border (the amount varies from $2,000 to $6,000 per person, sometimes more). Generally, they say they took cars or buses for transit through Mexico.
Despite the challenges and dangers they face in their home countries, the vast majority of these people are, strictly speaking, not refugees but economic migrants; very few of them have valid asylum claims. What’s more, although violence in Central America is endemic, homicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras have dropped significantly in recent years.
That’s not to say Central Americans don’t experience high levels of violence and poverty, but that there is no correlation between violent crime and emigration out of these countries. Indeed, just the opposite: as murder rates have fallen, emigration has increased.
Whatever their reasons for leaving, a wall or a physical barrier will do nothing to stop them from crossing the border. Because these are family units seeking asylum, they are not trying to evade U.S. authorities. In fact, they are seeking Border Patrol agents out in order to turn themselves in and file an asylum claim.
In El Paso, where the Rio Grande River is shallow and easy to walk across, the limits of a physical barrier are plain to see. All migrants need to do is walk across the river, continue a hundred yards or so through a no-man’s land between the river and the border fence, and then follow the fence until they reach one of the gates situated on top of a flood levy system. If you drive through certain areas of downtown El Paso near the levy and fence, you can see migrant groups on the south side walking toward these gates. There, they simply wait for Border Patrol to arrive with vans to pick them up. This is now happening on a daily basis, in broad daylight, with large groups of families.
Previously, when these migrants were processed and released by ICE, the adults would often be outfitted with an electronic ankle monitor. If they failed to check in at designated times or traveled outside a certain radius from where they told ICE they would be staying, immigration authorities would be notified. The ankle monitors are a major piece of ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), an alternative to detention for those in immigration proceedings.
But the problem with the ankle monitors is that many migrants simply cut them off and throw them away once they’re released from ICE custody. A former Border Patrol agent, who now works with a non-profit group that assists migrants in the Rio Grande Valley, told me that in his experience almost everyone released with an ankle monitor cuts it off at some point and absconds, effectively abandoning their asylum claim. At best, it’s unclear whether releasing migrant adults with ankle monitors is an effective alternative to detention.
The Migration Pipeline Is a Vast Money-Making Machine
No discussion of the border crisis is complete without noting that, from the moment Central American migrants cross Mexico’s southern border and begin their journey north, the entire process is a massive, multifarious, black-market, money-making machine.
A complex network of smugglers, corrupt local officials, truck drivers, landowners, lookouts, loan sharks, and Mexican drug cartels exert absolute control over the migration flows through Mexico and have, over the past decade or so, refined it into a lucrative business enterprise. Although exact figures are unknown—and likely unknowable—any back-of-the-envelope calculation will give you an idea of the amount of money changing hands along the migration pipeline.
For example, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that the agency was on pace to apprehend more than 100,000 migrants in March. Assuming each migrant pays, on average, $4,000 for safe passage over the border, that’s about $400 million—just for those apprehended crossing illegally in March. When we talk about the migration pipeline through Mexico, we’re talking about an international smuggling industry worth billions.
Some of the chief beneficiaries of this pipeline are Mexican drug cartels, which exert iron-fisted control over their territory. Cartels generally require every man, woman, and child who passes through their territory on the way to the U.S. border pay a tax, which is often included in the total fee smugglers quote to Central American families. Without paying this tax, migrants cannot cross the Rio Grande, and in many cases are at risk of being kidnapped or otherwise exploited.
One of the reasons the large caravans that formed last year in Central America arrived in Tijuana, and not in the Gulf region near the Rio Grande Valley, is because they had not paid off cartels in the Gulf region. For those without resources to pay this tax, traveling in a large caravan—and avoiding cartel-controlled territory—is the only way they can make the journey north with any modicum of safety.
The amount of money cartels are now making off migrant smuggling is substantial. For example, 162,000 people were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley sector in fiscal year 2018. Assuming that the total cost for each one of these people included an $800 tax for the cartels—a conservative estimate—the cartels and cartel factions in the Gulf region made nearly $130 million just off taxing people moving through their territory. For context, consider that funding for the Merida initiative, which is aimed at combating these cartels, is $145 million for the current fiscal year.
The black market for migration is remarkably sophisticated. At its inception point, in villages and towns across Central America, the market works mostly through word of mouth. If you want to migrate, you get a hold of someone whose family member or neighbor migrated, and they put you in touch with a local smuggler who will quote you a price, or sometimes a range of prices depending on certain conditions. For example, one Honduran man was quoted a price of $7,000 on the condition he bring his 6-year-old daughter with him and they agree to surrender to Border Patrol once they cross into the U.S. Otherwise, the price would have been $10,000.
The reason for the difference in price is that it’s much easier for smugglers to transport migrant families intending to claim asylum in the U.S. than migrants who want to enter the country undetected. Instead of crossing with the migrants and trying to evade Border Patrol, both at the border and at checkpoints further inland, smugglers transporting asylum-seekers need only to take them up to a crossing-point on the Rio Grande and tell them when to go over. There is zero risk for the smugglers themselves, hence the cheaper price if an adult brings a child with them.
Smugglers generally have a working knowledge of U.S. asylum policy, and they tell potential migrant families that if they claim asylum once in the U.S., they will be allowed to stay and work. This is of course true, due to the immense backlog in U.S. immigration courts, with wait times for a hearing of up to three years. But smugglers are incorporating these aspects of U.S. policy into their sales pitch to Central American families. It’s all part of how they market their services.
Cartels Are Using Kids as Get Into U.S. Free Cards
Without a doubt, there is a crisis at the southern border. But it’s a deeply misunderstood crisis that’s being driven by specific factors and disproportionately affecting specific regions of the border, primarily the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. In general, the growing numbers of migrants now crossing the border are being driven by three major factors:
- If you’re a minor or a family, it’s even easier to enter the U.S. now than it was during the Obama administration for the simple reason that there is no capacity at federal detention facilities and families can expect to be released soon after being detained by Border Patrol.
- Smugglers are now marketing to people —women, families—who don’t want to undertake an arduous or dangerous journey. They have created a sophisticated and efficient busing package that has proven very popular with families, and word has gotten back to communities in Central America that, if they pay, the journey will be short, safe, and they will not be detained for long once inside the U.S.
- Conditions in Central America have not improved enough to induce people to remain in their home countries. Persistent poverty, violence, and corruption, combined with the fear that it’s not going to be this easy to get into the U.S. forever, is prompting families to come now.
There is no easy solution to this crisis. Border security is part of the solution, but so is congressional action.
As long as Central American families know they can gain entry to the U.S. by initiating asylum proceedings upon crossing the border, the crisis will continue. As long as cartels and criminal networks know they can profit from trafficking migrant families to the border, they will do so. And as long as conditions in Central America continue to fester, families who can afford it will seek a better life for their children by traveling north.