Congressman Steve Pearce said Wednesday that most immigrants from Central America who are crossing illegally into the United States are driven by economic reasons, not fear of physical danger in their homeland.
Pearce, R-Hobbs, said he was part of a seven-member working group from the U.S. House of Representatives that visited Guatemala and Honduras over the weekend.
Political leaders in both countries admit to having some of the highest crime rates in the world, but their residents by and large are not trying to flee to the United States because of violence at home, Pearce said in a conference call with reporters. Rather, they are motivated by the possibility of jobs and more income.
Later Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich gave a different assessment of the problem, which he called a refugee crisis, not a border crisis.
Heinrich, D-Albuquerque, said unaccompanied children entering the United States hope to escape gang violence and drug dealers in their native land.
Heinrich said Congress, including its Republican members, should work with President Barack Obama to fix a broken immigration system, thereby helping solve the chaos on the border.
He said the Senate approved an immigration bill to aid refugees and provide the resources to crack down on drug smugglers and other criminals. The House of Representatives rejected it, leaving the country in a reactive posture instead of one in which problems could be solved, Heinrich said.
Pearce said he and the rest of the House delegation that visited Honduras and Guatemala did not venture from their hotel very often because of the dangers, but the message they received in both countries was consistent: "Send back our children."
"They absolutely are fearful of losing the next generation," he said.
Pearce said policymakers in Guatemala had communicated better with the U.S. delegation but Hondurans have been quicker in processing the return of their citizens.
A total of 38 Hondurans were removed from a detention center in Artesia, N.M., earlier this week and returned to their homeland, he said.
About 500 immigrants were being held in Artesia at a secure government compound that, ironically enough, is the training academy for U.S. Border Patrol agents. All of the immigrants being held in Artesia are mothers with children.
Pearce said most had been duped by drug cartels or other lawbreakers who charged them up to $10,000 apiece to get to the U.S. border.
The cartels had convinced these customers that they would be admitted to the United States if they made it to the border, he said.
This led many of those crossing illegally to readily approach Border Patrol agents to announce that they were immigrating to the United States. Agents took them into custody and they were sent to detention sites, such as Artesia, pending immigration hearings.
Pearce said it took about 15 days for the first flight returning immigrants from Artesia to Honduras. This is a slower turnaround for deportations than the Department of Homeland Security had set as a goal, but it sends a message that those who enter the United States unlawfully will be removed, Pearce said.
He says deportations are important in changing perceptions in Central America that the United States has an open border. Fewer people will risk thousands of dollars to immigrate illegally if they know the United States is sending back the violators that it catches, he said.
Pearce also had a criticism of many citizens of the United States. He said the appetite of U.S. residents for cocaine and other drugs had contributed to the violence and instability in Central America.
"Our demand for illicit drugs is causing a lot of disruption," he said.
Cartels are even using the same routes for illegal immigration as they do for drug smuggling, Pearce said.
Clarification, July 24, 2014:
Rep. Pearce’s staff sought to clarify remarks he made to reporters while discussing violence in Central American countries he visited with a congressional task force. A spokeswoman said that when the congressman said, “We kept to the hotel. We didn’t go out on the streets at night,” he didn’t mean that the group rarely left the hotel. During the day, the spokeswoman said, they visited various sites in Guatemala and Honduras.