OPINION

Opinion: With new wave of unaccompanied children, Mexico must step up immigration enforcement

There are thousands of children on the move from Central American countries.

They are traveling alone, under often-horrific conditions, and they are headed to the United States. This is a substantial problem, for many reasons, but it’s not a new one.

In October and November, about 10,500 unaccompanied children (UAC) crossed the U.S. southern border, a 106 percent increase from the same time frame a year before. 

There are rising fears that we could see a repeat of the 2014 massive influx of unaccompanied children. That year, 68,500 were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Part of the U.S. challenge in stopping illegal immigration across the southern border comes down to a matter of incentive. 

Remittances are one of Mexico’s primary sources of foreign income. In 2014, Mexico received $23.6 billion sent from Mexicans living abroad, and the vast majority of this was earned and sent by those living in the United States. Even as Mexico recognizes that the United States sees illegal immigration as a priority, the country has not been sufficiently incentivized to share our sense of urgency. Indeed, they have been making billions of dollars off the status quo.

Meanwhile, Central American parents are incentivized to send their children on a perilous journey to the United States because they believe their children will find sanctuary here. And they aren’t wrong. By last August, the Department of Health and Human Services had already released 43,000 of these children and resettled them with sponsors, many of them family members.

We often hear about how America’s illegal immigration problems can be resolved with border security tactics, like infrastructure and more officers on the front lines. 

We do need to make big strides in how we protect our border, but when it comes to unaccompanied minors, it is really more of a border processing challenge.

Once any illegal immigrant sets foot on U.S. soil, they enter the U.S. legal system for processing, detention, and deportation, which takes time -- sometimes years -- courts, and money. 

If we are to effectively deal with the flow of these minors into the United States, as well as address the larger volume of illegal immigrants generally, Mexico must be incentivized to stop migrants before they reach the U.S. border.

In July 2015, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State Thomas Shannon told the Senate Appropriations Committee that one of the methods the United States would pursue for stopping the flood of unaccompanied minors is to help Mexico halt migrants before they cross into Mexico. 

This was a shocking instance of forethought and political will for an administration that seems more focused on amnesty (and seldom-mentioned mass deportations) than law enforcement and border security. Yet, heavy doses of hypocrisy remain, as President Barack Obama condemns stricter immigration laws in Arizona, even as he called for far stricter immigration tactics in Mexico.

Indeed, at the administration’s urging, Mexico has launched an aggressive Southern Border Program. 

From October 2014 to April 2015, Mexico apprehended nearly 100,000 Central American illegal immigrants, about twice as many from the same time period a year before. To help accelerate and support Mexico’s efforts, the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that Congress passed at the end of last year provides nearly $1 billion in funding to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for a variety of programs in those countries designed to address illegal immigration.

And there are plans for the United States to spend $150 million on programs for and used by Mexico, which include a biometric tracking system and communications infrastructure for their southern border. 

This is a decent start, but big questions remain. 

Namely, who on this side of the border will be keeping track of how Mexico spends the hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars? Even as the administration loathes talking about immigration enforcement, this must not be a set-it-and-forget-it initiative.

To that point, U.S. citizens are tired of seeing their tax dollars funding this fight on both sides of the border. U.S. monies, as well as demands for Mexico to step up, seem to be having some impact, but perhaps it’s time we heap some more fuel on the incentive fire. 

With billions of dollars flowing to Mexico in remittances, and as Mexico’s largest trading partner, the United States holds significant leverage.

But do we have the political leadership to exercise that leverage and expand efforts to stop the flow of unaccompanied minors? Maybe Washington needs some further incentives, too. To be sure, the American electorate is about to deliver some—in the voting booth.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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