How the U.S. Is Trying to Convince Central American Parents to Keep Their Kids Home

National Journal
Rachel Roubein
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Perched on a rock, a boy wist­fully stares at the bleak, sprawl­ing waste­land be­fore him.

It’s an im­age plastered on a poster to be spread around El Sal­vador, Guatem­ala, and Hon­dur­as. There’s a mes­sage, writ­ten in the voice of a par­ent: “I thought it would be easy for my son to get his pa­pers in the North. That wasn’t true,” it says in Span­ish.

Law­makers are try­ing to fig­ure out just what ex­actly will stop par­ents from pay­ing thou­sands of dol­lars to smuggle their chil­dren in­to the United States, es­cap­ing pos­sible murder, rape, gang re­cruit­ment, and in­tens­i­fied vi­ol­ence in Cent­ral Amer­ica’s North­ern Tri­angle.

“I don’t think a moth­er in this coun­try ne­ces­sar­ily acts the same way as a moth­er in Hon­dur­as, Guatem­ala, or any oth­er place, be­cause their op­tions are so lim­ited,” Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., said at a Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee hear­ing Thursday.

A num­ber of pro­pos­als have been floated to grapple with just what ex­actly should be done — and what might work to stop the in­flux of un­ac­com­pan­ied chil­dren from El Sal­vador, Guatem­ala, and Hon­dur­as from cross­ing the bor­der il­leg­ally. But there’s one fact the White House and many Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats can agree on: Par­ents need to know they shouldn’t send their chil­dren on an il­leg­al jour­ney in­to the United States.

Two Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors an­nounced Thursday that they plan to in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion aimed at ad­dress­ing the “hu­man­it­ari­an crisis” at the bor­der.

And the bill, offered by Sens. John Mc­Cain and Jeff Flake, will send a sig­nal to par­ents: “The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will only stem the flow of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors to the United States when their par­ents see us send­ing them right back,” Flake said in a state­ment. “This le­gis­la­tion gives the ad­min­is­tra­tion the flex­ib­il­ity it has re­ques­ted so it can be­gin to do just that.”

The sen­at­ors aim to en­cour­age par­ents in Cent­ral Amer­ica to ap­ply for refugee status in their home coun­try and avoid send­ing their chil­dren on jour­neys in­to the U.S. through Mex­ico. The bill provides some in­cent­ive in the form of 5,000 ad­di­tion­al refugee visas for each of the three coun­tries.

Ad­di­tion­ally, it calls for the ex­ped­ited re­mov­al of all un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants stopped at the bor­der to be com­pleted in a span of “hours or days,” drastic­ally de­creas­ing the cur­rent wait time of months to years, a press re­lease states.

There’s also already a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ad­vert­ising cam­paign un­der­way aimed at telling par­ents that send­ing chil­dren in­to the U.S. il­leg­ally is dan­ger­ous, and they shouldn’t ex­pect leg­al pa­pers to be is­sued upon their chil­dren’s ar­rival. U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion de­veloped the cam­paign, and Pres­id­ent Obama’s emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing re­quest asks for an ad­di­tion­al $5 mil­lion for the mes­saging.

But some law­makers are skep­tic­al that this will ac­tu­ally in­flu­ence par­ents. Maybe wit­ness­ing planes re­turn chil­dren home would work bet­ter, they say.

“Isn’t the most ef­fect­ive de­terrent for young people leav­ing Cent­ral Amer­ica com­ing to our coun­try ac­tu­ally hav­ing the people in those coun­tries — Hon­dur­as, Guatem­ala, and El Sal­vador — see­ing those young people re­turned? Isn’t that the most ef­fect­ive de­terrent versus an ad­vert­ising cam­paign?” asked Sen. John Ho­even, R-North Dakota, dur­ing Thursday’s Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

To which Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son replied: “I agree that they need to see people com­ing back — that they wasted their money.”

But there are also oth­er ways to spread the word, John­son said, like he did on a re­cent trip to Guatem­ala.

“It was a rather awk­ward mo­ment, frankly, stand­ing next to the pres­id­ent of that coun­try, telling his cit­izens don’t come to our coun­try be­cause if you do, we will send you back, and it’s dan­ger­ous to do this,” he said. “But the pub­lic mes­saging is crit­ic­al.”

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