by David Nakamura, Jerry Markon and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Nearly a year before President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis on the border, a team of experts arrived at the Fort Brown patrol station in Brownsville, Tex., and discovered a makeshift transportation depot for a deluge of foreign children.
Thirty Border Patrol agents were assigned in August 2013 to drive the children to off-site showers, wash their clothes and make them sandwiches. As soon as those children were placed in temporary shelters, more arrived. An average of 66 were apprehended each day on the border and more than 24,000 cycled through Texas patrol stations in 2013. In a 41-page report to the Department of Homeland Security, the team from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) raised alarms about the federal government’s capacity to manage a situation that was expected to grow worse.
The researchers’ observations were among the warning signs conveyed to the Obama administration over the past two years as a surge of Central American minors has crossed into south Texas illegally. More than 57,000 have entered the United States this year, swamping federal resources and catching the government unprepared.
The administration did too little to heed those warnings, according to interviews with former government officials, outside experts and immigrant advocates, leading to an inadequate response that contributed to this summer’s escalating crisis.
Federal officials viewed the situation as a “local problem,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol station chief who led the UTEP study. The research, conducted last year, was funded by the Department of Homeland Security and published in March. A broader crisis was “not on anyone’s radar,” Manjarrez added, even though “it was pretty clear this number of kids was going to be the new baseline.”
Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s domestic policy adviser, said the administration and key agencies had made adjustments over time to deal with the influx of children but then responded with urgency once federal officials realized in May that the numbers would far exceed internal projections of 60,000 minors crossing the border in 2014.
Revised Border Patrol estimates now suggest the number could reach 90,000 by the end of September.
Last month, Obama ordered an emergency response overseen by the National Security Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds.
“What happened this year was . . . off-the-charts different,” Muñoz said. “It was not the same pattern. We assumed a significant increase, but this was not the same kind of trend line.
“This trend was more like a hockey stick, going up and up and up,” Muñoz added. “Nobody could have predicted the scale of the increase we saw this year. The minute we saw it, we responded in an aggressive way.”
But top officials at the White House and the State Department had been warned repeatedly of the potential for a further explosion in the number of migrant children since the crisis began escalating two years ago, according to former federal officials and others familiar with internal discussions. The White House was directly involved in efforts in early 2012 to care for the children when it helped negotiate a temporary shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
“There were warning signs, operational folks raising red flags to high levels in terms of this being a potential issue,” said one former senior federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal operations.
The former official said the agencies primarily in charge of border security, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were “ringing alarm bells” within the administration.
Meanwhile, top officials focused much of their attention on political battles, such as Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and the push to win congressional support for a broad immigration overhaul, that would have been made more difficult with the addition of a high-profile border crisis.
“I don’t think they ignored this on purpose, but they didn’t know what to do,” said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, which published a 2012 report highlighting the influx of minors. “For whatever reason, there was hesitation to address the root causes. I think the administration was dealing with it at a minimal scale, putting a Band-Aid on something they should have been thinking about holistically.”
Until recently, the number of Central American children crossing into the United States illegally was below 5,000 a year and was not considered a major problem among the many issues federal agents were dealing with at the Mexican border.
In 2009-2010, law enforcement agencies cracked down on criminal cartels in the traditional border hot spots near Tucson. By 2012, the Border Patrol and U.S. intelligence agencies began noticing a shift of activity to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, one they had anticipated.
They also found that even as overall illegal immigration to the United States slowed, the number of adults and families entering illegally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began to grow rapidly. Many were fleeing increasing violence and impoverished conditions in their home countries, according to U.S. officials and human rights groups.
The number of Central American minors — who are afforded greater protections under a 2008 U.S. anti-trafficking law — making the trip without their parents was a subset of the larger phenomenon, officials said. “It was more than it had been, but it wasn’t something that would cause you to sort of drop everything and say we’re in a crisis,’’ said a person familiar with internal deliberations.
Expressions of alarm
In Texas and in Central America, officials viewed the situation with greater alarm. In April 2012, the first ladies of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala voiced their concerns at a conference in Washington on unaccompanied minors. “The statistics are worrisome,” said Guatemala’s Rosa María Leal de Pérez.
A week later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) wrote a blistering letter to Obama, citing a 90 percent increase over the previous year in the number unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America. If the president failed “to take immediate action to return these minors to their countries of origin and prevent and discourage others from coming here, the federal government is perpetuating the problem,” Perry wrote. “Every day of delay risks more lives. Every child allowed to remain encourages hundreds more to attempt the journey.”
Inside the Obama administration, officials at the Department of Homeland Security were focusing most of their efforts on adults. Janet Napolitano, then secretary of homeland security, implored her counterparts in Mexico to increase border security to reduce the flow. U.S. immigration and border patrol officials created new processing centers, according to current officials and others familiar with the issue.
The agency responsible for the children’s well-being was the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Before the Homeland Security Department was created in 2002, the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service had overseen the handling of minors caught at the border.
But under an agreement brokered after immigration rights groups pushed to transfer the responsibility to a non-law-enforcement agency, the 2002 law gave the job to HHS, starting the following year.
Furthermore, the 2008 anti-trafficking law required Homeland Security to turn over unaccompanied minors from Central America to HHS within 72 hours. That agency would attempt to place the children with family members in the United States — or in temporary shelters — until they were summoned to appear before an immigration judge.
Numerous people familiar with the operations said HHS struggled to fulfill its role as the number of children began to rise in 2012. The agency rushed to set up temporary shelters at YMCAs, churches and other community centers.
In April 2012, a plan to house 200 children at unused dormitories at Lackland Air Force Base drew denunciations from immigrant rights groups.
HHS officials defended their performance in 2012 and as the crisis has escalated in recent months. Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said the agency has responded by expanding shelter capacity and reducing the amount of time children spend in HHS-funded shelters before being matched with families or sponsors while their cases are pending. “We have made progress in both areas, though significant work remains,” Wolfe said.
By the time the team from UTEP arrived at Fort Brown to examine the problem in the summer of 2013, the churn of the young immigrants had far outpaced the government’s capacity.
In its report, the UTEP team wrote that border agents were interested in setting up a “welcome center” overseen by HHS that would serve as a clearinghouse for the minors, freeing patrol agents to monitor the border.
The number of minors arriving illegally from Central America shot from 3,933 in 2011 to 20,805 in 2013. HHS had secured 5,000 beds across the country — twice as many as the previous year — but that wasn’t enough. Immigration courts were backlogged. Border Patrol stations were overrun. Federal officials estimated that the total number of minors would soar to 60,000 in 2014.
And no one knew what to do with them all.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers began hearing reports of the chaos from nongovernmental organizations and churches with operations in Central America. And they began efforts, in consultation with the administration, to increase federal funding to combat the crisis.
In 2011, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement had a budget of $149 million to shelter and care for the foreign children. By 2013, it had grown to $376 million, and the Obama administration requested $495 million in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said Democrats recognized the urgency but feared that if they raised too much of a public outcry, it would create political blowback for the Obama administration’s push to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
House Republicans had refused to move forward on a broader overhaul bill, which would include giving millions of illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status, arguing that Obama had failed to secure the border. They pointed to the administration’s decision in 2011 to order federal agents to employ “prosecutorial discretion” while enforcing deportation laws, focusing on the most violent criminals.
That was followed in 2012 by Obama’s announcement during his reelection campaign that the administration would defer the deportations of certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children before June 2007.
Democrats worried that the escalating border crisis would help Republicans make a case that the administration’s policies had failed, Roybal-Allard said.
“That was always a concern of mine: How to address the issue in a way that did not detract from the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
A person involved in the planning said that inside the White House, national security staffers were concerned about the growing influx of children but that the influential team of domestic policy advisers was far more focused on the legislative push.
“Was the White House told there were huge flows of Central Americans coming? Of course they were told. A lot of times,’’ said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Was there a general lack of interest and a focus on the legislation? Yes, that’s where the focus was.’’
Muñoz said the administration’s proposal to overhaul the immigration system would have gone a long way toward alleviating the border crisis and preventing future problems.
Among advocacy groups, the strain on the federal system became an increasing focus. In November 2013, a contingent of officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took a week-long trip to Mexico and Central America to discuss the crisis with local officials and U.S. diplomats in the region.
“The embassies did pay attention to us, and I think they also expressed interest in the issue,” said Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, who led the Catholic delegation. But, he added, “there are so many issues in these failing states, it’s hard to pick one. So it’s hard to assess, except with the light of hindsight, whether they should have known at that time this had become such a large exodus.”
Upon their return, the bishops briefed State Department officials and produced a 16-page report of their findings and recommendations, which was sent to Muñoz via e-mail in January.
By the time Congress approved an omnibus budget in January, the line-item for the refugee office had increased significantly from Obama’s initial request of $495 million to $868 million — based on the larger projections of minors. In February, then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius approved an additional $44 million transfer, bringing the office’s budget to $912 million for the year.
On Jan. 28, Obama delivered his State of the Union address, highlighting his push for a comprehensive immigration bill and pressing Republicans to join the effort. Three days later, Chris Crane, president of the union that represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, was asked about the president’s plan during an appearance on Fox News.
“At this moment, we have a humanitarian crisis on our southern border,” Crane told host Mike Huckabee. “Most problematic, most troubling and alarming, is the number of children coming across our border all by themselves. . . . It’s so out of control that just one office is averaging over 2,000 of these unaccompanied children each and every month.”
Muñoz said the government was prepared to handle up to 60,000 children in 2014 given the increases to the budget. The crisis point, she said, came only during another massive spike in the spring.
The number of unaccompanied minors had been averaging just under 4,500 a month at the beginning of the year, then jumped to more than 7,000 a month in March and April before exploding to more than 10,000 a month in May and June, administration officials said.
On a Mother’s Day trip to the McAllen, Tex., Border Patrol station, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who took office in December, saw the desperation for himself. A young girl tearfully told him she had come to the United States in an attempt to be reunited with her father.
Interviews by Border Patrol agents with the young immigrants and their families revealed a perception among them that the United States had relaxed its policies and would grant them “permisos” to remain in the country. U.S. officials said the permisos are actually formal notices to appear at immigration hearings that are issued to the minors when they are placed with relatives to await court dates.
Many of the minors also told border agents that they believed the cutoff date for permisos was June 2014, which federal officials said could explain the dramatic surge in the spring, which they said has since tapered off.
In McAllen, Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, received an urgent telephone call June 10 from operators of the local bus station. An avalanche of migrants was arriving, she was told, and many were exhausted and ill. The sister set up a shelter that same day at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
The consequences were spreading beyond Texas, as the refugee office began shipping the youths to shelters across the country. Government buses full of families and children began arriving in Tucson in May, said Dan Wilson, a volunteer with Casa Mariposa, a migrant aid organization.
Wilson said migrants told aid workers that human smuggling cartels had cut their rates to spur business, driving demand for the trips north atop buses and on trains.
In Washington, Johnson briefed Obama, who authorized an integrated government response. By then, the inadequacy of the government’s previous efforts was becoming apparent.
Mark Greenberg, HHS’s acting assistant secretary in charge of the unaccompanied minors program, told senators this month that the growing influx had “greatly exceeded the number of available places for children in HHS’s shelters, negatively impacting our ability to timely accept custody of these children” from Homeland Security.
Wolfe, the HHS spokesman, said that as of Thursday, the backlog of children waiting to be placed in the agency’s care had been cleared.
The president’s emergency proposal would devote $1.8 billion for HHS to house the children and families and $1.6 billion for the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to speed immigration hearings and deportations. An additional $300 million would be slotted for the State Department to help repatriate the minors and warn Central American families not to send them north.
Republicans have balked at the proposal, saying they are not willing to give Obama more money without changes to the 2008 anti-trafficking law to make it easier to deport the minors.
Obama, meanwhile, has ended his push for comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress, announcing that he intends to use his executive authority to amend the nation’s border laws.
But the crisis in Texas has complicated that political calculation, with Republicans contending that Obama’s weak enforcement helped create the crisis in the first place.
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Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. David Nakamura and Manuel Roig-Franzia are writers for The Washington Post.