WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of migrant women and children have crossed illegally into the United States from Central America, overwhelming Border Patrol agents and creating a humanitarian crisis at the nation’s southern border.

But the situation has drawn fire on President Barack Obama’s border policies, which some believe have played a significant role in triggering the recent exodus of migrants .

Since October, already 39,000 adults (mostly women) with children have turned themselves over to Border Patrol. Another 53,000 unaccompanied children have arrived from Central America, and the Obama administration is predicting 90,000 unaccompanied children will have arrived by September 2014.

“Apparently, word has gotten out that once encountered by Border Patrol agents and processed, thanks to this administration’s lax enforcement policies, one will likely never be removed,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., in a June 25 House Judiciary Committee hearing. Goodlatte, the committee’s chairman, referred to a Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Sector Intelligence Report that showed 95% of migrants turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents said they believed the U.S. had a new law granting permisos or passes to women with children and to unaccompanied children.

That is despite the fact that President Obama has enforced the border by deporting a record number of immigrants caught living and working illegally in the United States: 1.9 million immigrants by December 2013 — far more than any other U.S. president.

The administration has also made aggressive use of a policy called “Operation Streamline” that subjects immigrants accused of crossing the border illegally to group hearings and fast-track prosecutions and sentencing.

But much of the confusion appears to stem from the president enacting a 2012 policy known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) That order allows children who came to the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own to avoid deportation. However, it has conditions: They had to have arrived in the U.S. before turning 16; had to be younger than 31 on June, 15, 2007; and to have resided in the U.S. since after that date without a criminal history.

Moreover, current administration policy also has differentiated between unaccompanied minors from Mexico, who can be returned relatively quickly to their home nation under some circumstances, and those from Central-American nations that don’t border on the U.S., who have not been subject to a quick return.


Catholic Criticism

The U.S. bishops remain strongly supportive of the White House’s overall approach towards immigration, which calls for a comprehensive reform that would incorporate a new avenue to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the nation alongside enhanced measures to better secure U.S. borders.

But some other Catholic voices assign significant blame for the current border crisis to the 2012 implementation of DACA and to other moves by the president on the immigration file since he took power in 2008. According to Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, the DACA “sent a signal” for people to come.

“Whatever the case may be, once you say that people who come illegally into this country are going to stay in this country, then you’re going to have the situation on the border that you have today,” said Santorum.

He also called the president’s border-enforcement policy “incoherent,” citing Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last month to Central America to dispel “rumors” in the media there about any immigration amnesty for unaccompanied minors. Commented Santorum, “If you’re here, you can stay, but don’t come?”

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner, who is also Catholic, remains committed to the border-security-first stance that prevails among most Republicans in Washington. In a June 30 statement, Boehner said he had recently reiterated to Obama that progress on other elements of immigration reform would remain stalled until the administration demonstrates an authentic commitment to enforcing existing U.S. laws.

“In our conversation last week, I told the president what I have been telling him for months: The American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written,” Boehner said.

“Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue. The crisis at our southern border reminds us all of the critical importance of fixing our broken immigration system. It is sad and disappointing that — faced with this challenge — President Obama won’t work with us, but is instead intent on going it alone with executive orders that can’t and won’t fix these problems.”


Obama Backtracks

As criticism continued to mount this week about the policy regarding unaccompanied minors, the administration took other steps that appeared to backtrack somewhat on the issue. While President Obama assigned primary blame for the current immigration problems to the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives for failing to pass a comprehensive reform bill when he addressed what he described as “an actual humanitarian crisis on the border” on June 30, he also promised to commit significant additional federal resources to border security in the Southwest.

The same day, Obama sent a letter to Congress further detailing executive actions he has undertaken unilaterally and proposing that Congress provide authority for a range of other measures, including more immigration judges to process immigration claims more quickly and granting immigration officials “additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.”

The administration also announced on July 2 that it was launching a major public-relations campaign in Central America, seeking to inform citizens of those countries that unaccompanied minors who arrive in the U.S. won’t be able to obtain documentation allowing them to remain in the United States.

“The public-relations campaign marks an admission by the Obama administration that the surge of children crossing the border is caused, at least in part, by U.S. immigration policy,” according to a Washington Times article about the ad campaign. “Top officials initially argued that the problem was a spike in violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and that U.S. policy had little to do with the surge.”


Not Simply Migrants, but Refugees?

However, according to Catholics who are on the front lines of the immigration influx, the president’s policy on unaccompanied minors remains just one of an aggregation of factors that have convinced tens of thousands of people to flood into the U.S. — risking a ride on the “Death Train” or entrusting their lives and future to professional smugglers known as coyotes — to find a better and safer life.

“The coyotes have been giving them false information,” said Brenda Riojas, communications director for the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, which has been on the front lines of assisting the humanitarian crisis at the border. The coyotes make a handsome profit taking people through Mexico to the U.S. border, charging $3,000 to $10,000 for a family of three, she said, and regardless of the facts or the law, they are telling people in Central America that now is the time to come.

Along with the far greater economic opportunities available here, Riojas cited the gang problem as instrumental to the surge. One woman with three children told Riojas she left her home with her children after her 14-year-old son’s best friends were “shot point blank” when they refused to join the gang.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Catholic bishops, said the gangs inspire fear and terror and come to families to recruit their teenagers as child soldiers or for sexual services.

“The gang member will come to the mother and say, ‘I like your 13-year-old daughter; she’s going to be a girlfriend for the gang,’” he said. “That strikes horror in a mother’s heart.”

Whether migrants are fleeing pervasive gang violence and not simply the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity significantly impacts their legal claims to seek refuge in the U.S.

“One of the challenges right now is: Are these refugees or are they immigrants?” said Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, which has also been assisting with the humanitarian border crisis along the New Mexico border. “The situation in Guatemala, Honduras and, to some extent, El Salvador is very gang-infested: There’s no work, and there’s a great deal of violence.”

“So, in some ways, you can look upon many of these people as refugees,” he said, “and providing them the proper legal counsel is important as they go through the judicial process.”

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the criteria for refugee status is that migrants seeking the right of asylum must demonstrate “they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

Santorum agrees that the issue of whether Latin-American migrants qualify as refugees has to be addressed seriously, but he noted that, to date, the U.S. State Department has given far more consideration to homosexuals fearing persecution in Islamic countries.

“They pick preferred groups of people to come to this country without dealing with the more fundamental problem of equality or opportunity in their native countries,” he added.


USCCB Statement

The gang problem was specifically referenced in a July 2 statement that was sharply critical of the proposed shift in federal policy towards enhanced deportations.

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, urged the administration to reconsider its “expedited” removal proposal, because, he said, it would place minor children at risk of exploitation by the criminal gangs that proliferate across Central America.

“As a nation which has traditionally offered safe haven to those who are persecuted, this proposed policy undercuts our values as a nation,” Bishop Elizondo said. “The prospect of the United States sending vulnerable children back into the hands of violent criminals in their countries raises troubling questions about our moral character.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.