Originally published in UTEP Magazine, Winter 2015
By Nadia M. Whitehead
In the summer of 2014, more than 66,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended as they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. President Barack Obama called the massive influx of immigrant children an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
But national media, including The Washington Post and Fox News, criticized the White House when they learned of a study by University of Texas at El Paso researchers. Months before the waves of minors peaked at the border, UTEP immigration specialists had predicted the growing problem and shared their findings with the Department of Homeland Security.
“There had been a huge increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border over the course of three years [between 2010 and 2013],” said Kyle Susa, Ph.D., a research assistant professor who contributed to the study. “Our goal was to identify and define the scope of the problem.”
A year before the 2014 border crisis, researchers from UTEP’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration (NCBSI) visited Border Patrol stations in south Texas and Arizona to observe the dilemma firsthand.
“It was a dire situation,” Susa said. “There were lots of children being held in holding stations that weren’t set up to house so many of them.”
With so many kids at the stations, border patrol personnel were getting sidetracked from their primary patrol duties. Instead, they devoted their time to caring for the children. They made runs to laundromats to wash clothes, took trips to grocery stores, and smeared slices of bread with peanut butter and jelly. They even provided videos and games for entertainment.
“Yes, the children crossed the border illegally,” Susa said. “But they were still children who needed to be taken care of; they didn’t have their parents.”
After interviewing numerous border patrol personnel, the NCBSI team concluded that the situation was likely to get worse. According to interviewees, unaccompanied immigrant children wanted to get caught by agents on the U.S. border.
Victor Manjarrez, associate director of the NCBSI, had the opportunity to chat about the findings with Fox News reporter Greta Van Susteren in “On The Record.”
“Our report indicated one of the primary factors of this was the perceived lack of consequence on the individuals that were crossing,” Manjarrez told Van Susteren in the televised interview.
That was because smugglers of children understood that once a child was apprehended for illegal entry into the U.S., the minor would be reunited with family in the states until an immigration hearing.
These and other findings were officially published in a 41-page report in March 2014, right before the summer onslaught.
Media got word of the report during the crisis, and the University soon was in the spotlight.
“The visibility it provided to UTEP was absolutely phenomenal,” said Manjarrez, who conducted more than a dozen media interviews about the report. “It put us on the map for something we should be leaders in: border security. There’s no better place that’s better situated for this research than UTEP.”
Later, when the news died down, the NCBSI examined the circulation and public viewership that the report had received. They learned that it wasn’t just mentioned by news media, but by other universities and institutes of higher education, multiple government agencies, and by high-ranking public officials, including Speaker of the House John Boehner.
The team estimated that nearly 92 million people may have potentially viewed the report. That’s counting the more than 800,000 Washington Post subscribers who saw it on the front page of their Sunday paper.
The 60,000-plus minors who illegally crossed into the U.S. during the summer are now awaiting their appearance in court. But like the smugglers suspected, many have been released to their families here in the U.S. until their individual court date.
So far, Manjarrez says, 70 percent of the children have missed their scheduled appearances in court.
“They know there’s a chance that they’re not going to get to stay in the U.S., so many are now avoiding the authorities,” the former Border Patrol agent said. “For the children who do not have parents here, the vast majority get returned to their country of origin.”
Manjarrez and Susa are hoping to conduct a study on the immigration court processes these children are currently going through.
“We want to see what the impacts of this flood of children are on the other parts of the system,” Manjarrez said. “This wasn’t just going to affect the border stations; I think it’s going to have a big impact elsewhere, too.”