WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and his aides have repeatedly sought to dispel the rumors driving thousands of children and teens from Central America to cross the U.S. border each month with the expectation they will be given a permiso and allowed to stay.
But under the Obama administration, those reports have proved increasingly true.
The number of immigrants under 18 who were deported or turned away at ports of entry fell from 8,143 in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, to 1,669 last year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Similarly, about 600 minors were ordered deported each year from nonborder states a decade ago. Ninety-five were deported last year, records show, even as a flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America – five times more than two years earlier – began pouring across the Southwest border.
The previously unavailable deportation data are likely to fuel the political debate over whether Obama administration policies are partly responsible for the 52,000 children and teens who have surrendered to or been caught by Border Patrol agents since October, spurring fresh concerns about U.S. border security and immigration law.
Most of the minors are being held in Border Patrol stations in Texas and Arizona, and in emergency facilities set up by the Department of Health and Human Services on military bases and other sites. About 11,000, however, were from Mexico and were swiftly bused back across the border, as the law allows.
Obama administration officials deny that lenient policies – including a 2012 program that allowed immigrants who had entered the country illegally as minors before June 2007 to apply for deportation deferrals – have encouraged the sudden surge.
They instead blame a 2008 law signed by Bush that made it nearly impossible to repatriate unaccompanied minors to Central America without letting them appear before an immigration judge.
A mounting backlog in immigration courts since then has allowed most Central American minors to stay for years while their cases wend their way through the legal system. Once they are assigned to social workers, as the law requires, the overwhelming majority are sent to live with their parents or relatives in the United States, officials said.
Organized crime groups in Central America have exploited the slow U.S. legal process and the compassion shown to children in apparent crisis, according to David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland.
He said smugglers, who may charge a family up to $12,000 to deliver a child to the border, often tell them exactly what to say to American officials.
“The cartels have figured out where the hole is,” he said.
About 60 criminal investigators have been sent to San Antonio and Houston to try to infiltrate these networks and prosecute the smugglers who bring the children into the United States, officials said.
Obama last week asked Congress to change the 2008 law to give the head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, greater discretion to send children back to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras more quickly.
As it now stands, the 2008 law guarantees unaccompanied minors from those countries access to a federal asylum officer and a chance to tell a U.S. judge that they were victims of a crime or face abuse or sexual trafficking if they are sent home. If the claim is deemed credible, judges may grant a waiver from immediate deportation.
“Word of mouth gets back, and now people are calling and saying, ‘This is what I said’ ” in court, said a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Whether it is true or not, the perception is that they are successfully entering the United States. That is what is driving up the landings.”
The increase has been dramatic. For most of the past decade, U.S. agents apprehended fewer than 4,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras each year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.
The total jumped to 10,146 in fiscal year 2012. It doubled to 20,805 last fiscal year. It nearly doubled again, to 39,133, between October and June 15.
The number of unaccompanied Mexican minors apprehended dropped for several years, but rose from 13,974 in 2012 to 17,240 last year. Most are bused back, although some are permitted to seek asylum.
The deportation data released to the Los Angeles Times do not distinguish between children who entered the U.S. with a parent and those who came alone and are less likely to be sent back. Children who arrived alone but turned 18 during deportation proceedings are counted as adults.
The figures also don’t include Mexican children who were turned back at the border by Border Patrol agents, as the law allows in their cases.
When Congress returns from the holiday weekend Monday, the Obama administration will ask lawmakers to appropriate more than $2 billion to cover the mounting costs of the crisis, including more staff for border stations, more detention facilities and more social workers.
In the meantime, extra asylum officers, immigration judges and prosecutors have been rushed to the border to help conduct initial interviews and start deportation proceedings.