By Mary Alice Murphy
Congressman Steve Pearce serves on the seven-member working group trying to develop policy on the humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico. More than 57,000 women and children so far this year have flooded across the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. Most of them have come from Guatemala and Honduras.
The members of the working group traveled to Central America and visited with Guatemalan and Honduran presidents, as well as traveling to parts of each country.
"It was a quiet trip," Pearce told New Mexico press representatives. "It was an attempt not to be in the press there. The countries are saying: 'Send back our children.' They are fearful of losing their next generation. Here, we should treat the children humanely."
Pearce said the leaders are saying that the cartels are enticing families to send their women and children to the U.S., because they will have a better life.
He said the first lady of Honduras, who oversees several programs for children in her country, told the group members that most of those traveling illegally to the U.S. are not looking for the American Dream, but simply want to come to the U.S. to earn some money and then return home with those funds. Pearce said the working group members were told that only a few of those crossing the U.S. border were driven away by the violence in their countries.
"We've had more than 50,000 crossing in six months," Pearce said. "The cartels are charging $5,000 to $10,000 per child, so these children are revenue generators for the cartels.
"Now we're faced with what to do legislatively," Pearce said. "We will suggest policy in a report we will give to the Speaker (of the House). I'm sure there will be an element of border security in our recommendations."
He said a 2008 bill was causing part of the problem, because those who cross illegally from a non-contiguous country are immediately sent back.
Mike Jackson of KSVP in Artesia asked what Pearce would say to the citizens of his town.
"Under Bush and again under this administration, I have been critical of the immigration policy," Pearce said. "I was told by the secretary of Homeland Security that Artesia was the only place to put the women and children while the department follows the law. Processing should take five to eight days if the illegal immigrant is not seeking asylum. If they are seeking asylum, it lengthens the stay to seven to 12 days.
"A flight left Artesia today with 38 Hondurans being returned to their country," Pearce continued. "This flight was two weeks after the people illegally crossed the border. Deputy Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas said the department of Homeland Security is simply trying to follow the law, which is the right thing to do. About 200 more are ready to go, and we will press the countries to give permission for us to return them."
Zach Ponce of the Carlsbad Current-Argus asked Pearce what the members saw and if there were any surprises.
Pearce said he felt the communication was better in Guatemala, but Honduras is processing their returnees more quickly.
"The problem is really the border between Mexico and Guatemala," Pearce said. "It is a river and Guatemala is a gateway to Mexico and the U.S. Yes, we have security problems on our borders, but they also need better security at that border into Mexico. They run rubber rafts back and forth day and night carrying people across the river. We need to try to get Guatemala not to let that happen.
"The cartels are telling those taking the journey to the U.S. to give themselves up and they will be treated well," he continued. "The heads of the governments are telling us returning their residents is the only way to stop the flow."
A reporter on the call asked Pearce's sense of where the $3.7 billion that President Obama has requested will fit into the process.
"We're working on policy," Pearce said. "The Appropriations Committee is working on that. It's not just to throw money at the problem; we have to have policy. We all feel the pressure, and hope before the August break we will see both bills."
Another speaker asked about the 570 being held in Artesia. "Are they being educated?"
"I anticipate having them there no longer than two weeks or so, and right now school is out," Pearce said. "If it's longer, we will have to find funding for their being in the schools. The local and state governments should not have to foot the bill. It should be federal costs."
Milan Simonich out of Santa Fe asked if the Mexican cartels are the only ones bringing people to the border or if there are also other groups.
"It looks like there are also some freelance operators," Pearce said. "I don't know how the cartels tolerate them.
"The U.S. has to take the responsibility for the demand for illicit drugs, which is what is causing the violence," Pearce said. "We need to address why. This stuff being raised in those countries, but not being consumed there, is just being sent to the U.S. because of the demand."
A reporter asked if Pearce was saying the drugs are causing the problem.
"Yes, the same corridors are being used for the drugs and the people," Pearce said. "If this country did not have such an appetite for the drugs, it wouldn't be happening. Both Guatemala and Honduras made that clear."
A reporter asked about the 200 adults in processing and who they were.
"Every adult in Artesia is female, usually with underage kids," Peace said. "Under the age of about 15. There are no males accompanying them. The administration is processing them quickly, but the system is overwhelmed. The director says we have to stem the flow and send the message to the cartels that those arriving are being sent back."
Walter Rubel of the Las Cruces Sun-News asked: "If you're talking to the presidents of the countries, do they downplay the violence? Did you see enough of the country to see whether there was violence?"
"The presidents admit to some of the highest crime rates in their countries," Pearce said. "We got into a very poor area and saw how bad it was. A large percentage of those in Artesia are not claiming asylum or fleeing from violence. If they claim asylum, there has to be a hearing. Most of those in Artesia say they are coming for jobs. Violence doesn't seem to be a driving force. People on the streets of the countries are concerned about violence but are more concerned that they have to eat. "
He said the daily numbers coming across the border are down to about 800 a day. "The weather plays a factor, and even with the numbers dropping, we're on track to have about 100,000 illegal immigrants cross the border this year. We need to shorten the process. The deputy secretary is trying to expedite the process. During cooler weather there are surges of people crossing; in hotter weather more like 500-800 a day."
Pearce, before he had to leave for a House floor vote, said, in his communications with the secretary and deputy secretary of Homeland Security, he feels they are being honest and trying to follow the law.