WASHINGTON, D.C. – The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras want their refugee children back but they also want some help from the United States with their repatriation.
This is the message from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has just returned from a fact-finding tour of the two countries. The Laredo Democrat was part of a bi-partisan U.S. House delegation that visited Central America. It included U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who heads a House task force that is investigating the surge in unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border.
“We visited some of the outreach centers in Honduras where they work with kids that have come back. We met with General John F. Kelly from U.S. South Command who has been working with them. He wants to do more. Hopefully, we can give him more resources so he can do his work down there,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar and the House delegation, which included U.S. Rep. David Price, ranking member of the House s Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, met with Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina and the Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández. The First Lady of Honduras, Ana García de Hernández, recently visited the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio to see the Honduras children kept in detention centers.
Cuellar said he learned two new things while on the trip.
“Firstly, I learned that both presidents want their kids back. They told us this. If you think about it, it’s a brain drain. You are taking the kids who are going to be the future of those countries. But, they said they need help in the capacity to return them. On Monday, 38 people were returned from Artesia, New Mexico. They can handle that. But if we are going to increase the return they need help to receive them and integrate them. You do not want to return them to an abusive home. As an appropriator we are working to make sure we get money down to the Central American countries,” Cuellar said.
“Secondly, I learned there is a superhighway that the drug organizations have. Right now they control routes and we saw the outline of the routes. They control drugs going into the U.S. They control human trafficking. They control kids. They do social media. They do marketing to get the kids over here. They say, hey, we can get you in. They tell the kids they have two levels. We can give you a regular price or we can charge you more and we guarantee a safe route. They are sophisticated, the drug and human smuggling organizations. Those are the two major things I learned.”
The Guardian asked Cuellar if the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras acknowledge that children are fleeing their countries because of violence from street gangs and drug cartels. Cuellar said:
“We know there is poverty and violence. Long term, we have got to help those countries. We have got to build them up. We have got to work on the violence situation. But, right now we have got to help them build the capacity as we talk about returning more people back.
“Of course there is violence. Honduras is the No. 1 Murder Capitol. Guatemala, 53 percent of the people make $2 a day or less. But, why are the children leaving now? The violence has been going on for years. Why now? Why, because the smuggling organizations found that loophole (in U.S. law) and have taken advantage of it. They are recruiting kids. They are even giving rebates. You bring in somebody else and we will repay you some of the money. They are giving girls that make the trip birth control pills, just in case they get raped. They are sophisticated, horrible organizations that are taking advantage of poor kids. They see drugs and adults and now kids as a commodity to make money.”
Cuellar said there is no doubt Guatemala and Honduras want to help the United States with the repatriation of their children. “Both presidents are trying to do their best. They want to help. In Guatemala, so far this year, 96 percent of the children that have come back have come from Mexico. That shows we have to do a little bit more. But, the bottom line is we have got to work with those countries and that is down to the appropriators. We have got to appropriate more money for those Central American countries.”
Cuellar, along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, has introduced the HUMANE Act in order to speed up the removal of the unaccompanied children from Central America. A 2008 anti-human trafficking act would be tweaked so that children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are treated the same as undocumented children from Mexico that are apprehended by Border Patrol, Cuellar said. He said there is no dollar amount in his new bill for the Central American countries. However, he said the money can be found by “reprogramming” dollars from other programs.
“We have got to look at the 2015 budget. Remember, I fought President Obama on this. Earlier this year, the Administration wanted to cut money for Mexico and Central America and we said no. We won. We added more money. We are going to work with the authorities Mexico on security for their southern border with Guatemala and I think this is going to slow down the numbers of kids heading north.”
Cuellar is a member of the conservative Blue Dog group of House Democrats. He said the group met Monday with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. “He is a good man,” Cuellar said. “While we were there I asked him about two proposals. One would open floodgates. I won’t say who suggested that. On our concept (the HUMANE Act) we are on the same page. In fact, he said, ‘you are one step ahead of me on this one.’ We are going to work with the Secretary. He gets it.”
Cuellar disputed claims that under his legislation unaccompanied children would be denied due process. “We keep the protections in the 2008 law. But, instead of the kids waiting three to five years to go through the court system, and remember we have 375,000 kids backlogged, we are going to give them a speedy trial. They are going to have the right to go before a judge. If they want to voluntarily return themselves, then the Consulate will come in. They will be able to do that.”