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POLITICS: White House

On immigrant surge, White House story falls apart

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,White House,Byron York,Immigration,Barack Obama,Border Security,Jeh Johnson

At any other time, the growing crisis on the Mexican border, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied young people crossing illegally into the United States, might dominate the news. Yet the situation has received less attention than it might amid the furor over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat, the collapse of Iraq, the continuing Bergdahl matter, and Hillary Clinton's book tour. They're all genuinely important news stories, and they've crowded out disaster at the border.

But whether or not many people noticed, this was the week in which the Obama administration's attempts to deflect blame for the border crisis fell apart.

Most of the illegal immigrants are what Border Patrol officials call OTMs. That is, while they are crossing into the United States from Mexico, they are actually from other countries -- in this case, mostly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- and are classified as Other Than Mexican immigrants.

Top administration officials have tried to attribute the surge in crossings to violence and poverty in those countries. "The situation is motivated primarily by the conditions in the countries that they're leaving -- El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. "Violence, poverty -- I believe that is principally what is motivating the situation."

For its part, the White House dismissed arguments from Republicans that President Obama's DACA decree -- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in this country if they came at a young age -- created, in effect, a magnet for young people to try to enter the U.S. illegally. At the White House briefing on June 9, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about statements from House and Senate Republicans "that this was sort of the byproduct of the president putting together DACA, and so, because of the way that that's been sort of filtered through, immigrant children believe that they can cross the border and stay here."

"I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the ability of Republican members of Congress to divine the thoughts and insights of children in Central American countries," Earnest answered. "My point is, I'm not sure this withstands a whole lot of scrutiny."

As it turns out, the Republican explanation does withstand a whole lot of scrutiny. Recent days have been filled with anecdotal reports, from local news outlets in Central America to major American newspapers, citing immigrants who say they came because they believe U.S. law has been changed to allow them to stay. And now comes word that Border Patrol agents in the most heavily-trafficked area of the surge, the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas, recently questioned 230 illegal immigrants about why they came. The results showed overwhelmingly that the immigrants, including those classified as UACs, or unaccompanied children, were motivated by the belief that they would be allowed to stay in the United States -- and not by conditions in their homelands. From a report written by the agents, quoting from the interviews:

The main reason the subjects chose this particular time to migrate to the United States was to take advantage of the "new" U.S. "law" that grants a "free pass" or permit (referred to as "permisos") being issued by the U.S. government to female adult OTMs traveling with minors and to UACs. (Comments: The "permisos" are the Notice to Appear documents issued to undocumented aliens, when they are released on their own recognizance pending a hearing before an immigration judge.) The information is apparently common knowledge in Central America and is spread by word of mouth, and international and local media. A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the U.S. urged them to travel immediately, because the United States government was only issuing immigration "permisos" until the end of June 2014…The issue of "permisos" was the main reason provided by 95% of the interviewed subjects.

The report added that a "second reason" cited by the immigrants is "the increased gang-related violence in Central America that authorities are unable to contain." In addition, other immigrants said they came because they had finally gotten enough money, either from savings or funds sent from relatives in the United States, to make the trip. Still others cited unemployment, poverty, and domestic abuse in their countries. Nevertheless, the report concluded that "the issuance of 'permisos' to family units was the primary reason for leaving their countries."

The report suggests that this new wave of illegal immigration is building on previous waves of illegal immigration. "All of the interviewed subjects stated that they had family members or, to a lesser extent, friends already living in the U.S.," the report said. "Many of the relatives and friends are undocumented aliens, who have been living in the U.S. for periods ranging from several months to 10+ years."

Several Republican senators cited the Border Patrol report in the hearing with Secretary Johnson last week. Johnson said he had not seen the paper. "The document you read from, I have never seen," Johnson told Republican Sen. John Cornyn. "It's supposedly a draft document. I don't know that I agree with the assessment there."

"Well, they're interviews with 230 of the people detained coming across the border," Cornyn said.

"I'm not sure I agree that that is the motivator for people coming in — for the children coming into south Texas," Johnson answered. "I think it is primarily the conditions in the countries that they are leaving from."

As some Democrats on the committee had already suggested, Johnson told Cornyn that, if there, in fact, are misperceptions about U.S. law among illegal immigrants, the way to clarify the situation is to pass comprehensive immigration reform. "If comprehensive immigration reform is passed, the uncertainty that may be existing in people's minds about our law gets resolved," Johnson said.

Others, including the White House spokesman, have made the same point in what has become the administration's fallback position: If you don't like what is happening at the border, pass comprehensive immigration reform. It is essentially a concession that yes, the young illegal immigrants flooding across the border are coming because they've heard that Obama administration policies will allow them to stay. But it's also a sign that the White House has no intention to do much about the problem.

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