The surge in Central American children illegally entering the United States in recent weeks can't be solved through enforcement alone, and it is striking pain in the hearts of Border Patrol agents, says a Democratic congressman.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents Texas' 28th District, visited with agents and children while touring an immigration detention facility Saturday.
The children had been caught crossing from countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They spoke of the desire to risk everything to escape economic hardship and threats of violence at home, Cuellar told the Los Angeles Times.
A 14-year-old girl named Wendy feared the gang-related bloodshed near her grandmother's home in El Salvador, Cuellar said. Hoping to reunite with her mother in Virginia, she left with her 17-year-old sister and 10-month-old nephew.
To stop thousands of children like Wendy from traveling northward, the U.S. must help build up the Central American economy, Cuellar said.
"If we keep playing defense on the 1-yard line — which is the U.S.-Mexico border — you can see what's happening," Cuellar said. "Bottom line is that we have got to take it to them and do something to work with Mexico on their Southern border and those countries in Central America."
From recent conversations with Mexican officials, Cuellar said he learned that they too are alarmed by this year's doubling of youth migrating out of Central America because many of the voyaging boys are being recruited into Mexican drug cartels.
"It's apparently enough to get their attention," he said.
The immigration has been driven by violent conditions in Central America and by a rumor that a new U.S. law allows women with children to secure a "permiso," or pass, that allows them to stay in the United States indefinitely, authorities say.
An internal Border Patrol study, based on interviews with 230 migrants detained in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, found that the rumor "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."
Referring to the Rio Grande Valley area, the report said, "If the collected information is true, RGV Sector will continue to experience increased family units from Central America, at least through June 2014. Traditionally, undocumented alien traffic decreases during the June-July timeframe; however, this year will be an exception."
On Saturday, Cuellar became the first member of Congress to tour a temporary housing facility in McAllen, Texas, for more than 1,000 children and some adults. He first spoke with agents, who reiterated that what the Obama administration has described as a humanitarian crisis isn't a problem you can "enforce yourself out of."
The agents, many of whom were former military members, told Cuellar that they were pained to see so many children and mothers.
"They said, 'Henry, no matter how strong we are, we are fathers, we are mothers, we have kids,'" Cuellar said after the tour. "'When we leave our kids at home and come to work, and we see this — it's hard.'"
Last week, five immigrant rights groups sued the Obama administration, alleging that children in custody between the ages of 5 and 17 have faced physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, freezing temperatures, inadequate water and spoiled food.
The Border Patrol announced that it would look into the allegations, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now providing humanitarian support.
The union for Border Patrol agents acknowledged a since-deleted Twitter post on Saturday that said agents were suffering from low morale because of all the new duties they have had to take on with the influx of children. The duties included "babysitting, diaper changing [and] burrito wrapping."
Cuellar said agents were doing "heroic" work given the circumstances.
"We as Congress pay attention to all over the world except our own backyard," Cuellar said. "I've been saying we have to do more with those economies in the south. If not, they are going to keep coming."
Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo in Tucson contributed to this report.