By Sarah Hinds
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee June 25, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, cited violence as the primary reason for the influx of unaccompanied children immigrating to the United States illegally.
“In visiting with these children, I’ve witnessed the human consequences of the violence they have endured,” Bishop Seitz said. “They (violent gangs) act with impunity, threatening families. … Violence is the straw that stirs the drink.”
The Department of Homeland Security reports that more than three-quarters of the 52,000 child migrants apprehended at the border since the beginning of this fiscal year are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Bishop Seitz told the committee that gangs in these three countries are increasingly targeting children, attempting to recruit them into their networks and threatening violence against the children and their families if they refuse.
Bishop Seitz joined legislators and border security experts at one of several hearings held the last week of June in Washington to discuss the root cause of the massive influx of child migrants, and to examine possible solutions.
At the well-attended hearing held in the Rayburn House Office Building, Bishop Seitz told lawmakers that migration should be “orderly, safe, controlled and consistent with the common good.” He lamented the state of overcrowded detention facilities, and emphasized the importance of due process and legal representation for migrant children.
He also suggested that children be placed in “child-friendly shelters,” provided with pastoral services, and with case managers to ensure their appearance at immigration proceedings.
Ultimately, he implored Congress to abandon partisanship and instead address violence in Central American countries to put forth a “concerted effort to address the root causes of this exodus.”
At the hearing, officially titled “An Administration-Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Minors,” Republican lawmakers and several others testifying on the panel attributed the influx in child migrants to what they referred to as the Obama administration’s lax enforcement of immigration policy.
“Policy can directly affect border security,” testified Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council of the American Federation of Government Employees.
“This crisis is a culmination of a variety of factors including but not limited to the catch-and-release program — it’s bad policy encouraging people to enter illegally. Individuals know they will be released if apprehended. No one is afraid of breaking the law,” he said.
Judd also expressed his concern that 40 percent of U.S. Border Patrol manpower has been removed from the field to process and care for child migrants taken into custody.
He told the Judiciary Committee, “The surge has made all aspects of smuggling easier by tying up Border Patrol agents with large groups of unaccompanied children.”
Chris Crane, president of National Council 118-National Immigration and Customs Enforcement also testified and attributed the crisis to the administration’s immigration policy. The council also is part of the American Federation of Government Employees
“Without strong enforcement of laws, people will continue to come to the border. To consistently enforce our nation’s immigration laws is the most humane thing we can do,” he said in his testimony.
Bishop Seitz referred to the relatively stagnant numbers of migrants from other Central American countries to support his assertion that violence, not policy, is the primary factor in the surge.
“From what I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a significant change in policy in recent months,” he told Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, in the question-and-answer segment of the hearing. “What has changed is the violence on the ground in these countries. The number of children being killed each month in Honduras has been around 70. In the month of May, it was 102. And so it seems that gangs and narco-traffickers are now choosing to target children.”
“Showing compassion isn’t an option. That’s what we have to do with people in need,” Bishop Seitz said in an interview with Catholic News Service after the hearing went into recess. “Especially when they are facing threats to their lives and they’re at our door.”
In a teleconference the morning of June 25, in which Bishop Seitz also was a participant, Leslie E. Velez, senior protection officer of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have reported a 712 percent increase in applications for asylum since 2008 for people coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Velez referenced a March 2014 study conducted by his U.N. agency titled “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children From El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, and the Need for International Protection.” The United Nations interviewed 400 migrant children from these countries for the study. Velez indicated that 58 percent of the children reported violence in their home country as a primary reason for fleeing.
“This is a regional problem that needs regional solutions,” said Velez.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testified before the Homeland Security Committee June 24, after visiting south Texas the previous week.
“While there (in Texas), I spent time talking with the children. It was a vivid reminder that this is a humanitarian issue as much as it is a matter of border security,” he said in his testimony. “How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and our values.”
In his testimony he outlined the administration’s strategy to both quickly and efficiently process the influx of unaccompanied minors through the system, and to “stem the increased tide of illegal immigration” into the Rio Grande Valley.
The Rio Grande Valley sector has seen the greatest uptick in unaccompanied minors, with the number of children apprehended jumping from 13,532 in fiscal year 2013 to 37,621 thus far in fiscal year 2014.
The administration estimates 90,000 migrant children will arrive in the United States by the end of the current fiscal year.