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How US Intelligence Distorted Its Own Data on Child Migration

An intelligence center report contradicts claims that violence and poverty in Central American countries are the main forces behind a rise in border crossings, but its assertions are contradicted by the center’s own data.

On July 14 the Tea Party-oriented website published what it said was a leaked July 7 document from the US government’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) assessing the recent increase in unauthorized immigration by unaccompanied minors and adults with young children.

Entitled “Misperceptions of US Policy Key Driver in Central American Migrant Surge,” the EPIC report seemed intended to contradict claims by immigrants and human rights workers that violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are the main forces behind the rise in border crossings. Citing interviews with 230 Central Americans detained at the Texas border, the report blamed the current influx on “misperceptions of recent US immigration policies,” notably the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, President Obama’s program suspending deportations for many young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“These misperceptions are likely fueled by human smugglers and Central American media – providing deliberate, errant, or unwitting reporting to migrants on the [DACA] memorandum and comprehensive US immigration reform,” the EPIC report claimed. The “flow to the border will remain elevated until migrants’ misperceptions about US immigration benefits are changed.”

EPIC’s analysis fits in well with conservative views on immigration. Ignoring push factors in countries of origin, immigration opponents regularly insist that any relaxation of our harsh enforcement policies will motivate alien hordes to flood across the border; mere mention of immigration reform is enough to set off an invasion, they believe. Conservative Republicans have picked up the DACA claim: Defunding DACA became a major component of legislation passed on Aug. 1 by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in response to the border situation.

But there’s usually no factual basis for the conservatives’ claims; in the case of the leaked July 7 report, the intelligence center’s assertions are flatly contradicted by its own data.

“Free Pass” or Notice to Appear?

We should always be cautious when a government agency puts out information that could help augment its funding. Claims of crisis at the border have helped US Customs and Border Protection (CPB), one of the two main agencies operating EPIC, arrive at its current annual budget of $12.9 billion. There are a number of problems with the EPIC report, such as manipulations of graphs and statistics pointed out by Newsweek’s Louise Stewart. But the biggest problem is with the report’s main evidence: the 230 interviews conducted in late May with migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley.

An internal report on the interviews was leaked in June and then distributed to the press by the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). This report suggests that the interview process was neither scientific nor thorough. There are no breakdowns of the interview subjects by age or nationality, and apparently all 230 interviews were carried out in just one day, May 28. The interviewers were largely Border Patrol agents, and as Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), has noted, “the Border Patrol may be among the worst agencies to interview migrant children and assess their motivations” due to the agents’ “power over migrants, disposition, and (lack of) training.”

But what’s most striking about the interviews is that the people questioned apparently said nothing about DACA or immigration reform.

According to the interview report, about 95 percent of the migrants cited a ” ‘new’ US ‘law’ that grants a ‘free pass’ or permit (referred to as ‘permisos‘) being issued by the US government to female adult OTMs [other than Mexicans] traveling with minors and to UACs [unaccompanied children].” The interview report explains that the migrants were referring to “the Notice to Appear documents issued to undocumented aliens when they are released on their own recognizance pending a hearing before an immigration judge.”

In other words, the migrants were describing a routine process required under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) for unaccompanied children (except Mexicans and Canadians) detained at the border. The process is also frequently applied to women with young children, since the government lacks adequate facilities for holding them. This has nothing to do with DACA or immigration reform, and no major misperception is involved.

“At This Particular Time”?

The interview report does describe a substantial misperception, however. “A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the Unted States urged them to travel immediately” based on false reports that “the United States government was only issuing immigration permisos until the end of June 2014.”

This highlights another problem with the EPIC report: It fails to explain what questions the agents asked and what order they asked them in.

At least two other studies – one by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and one by the American Immigration Council, both focusing on unaccompanied minors – asked general, open-ended questions about the causes of migration. In both studies, the reason the greatest number of child migrants gave was the need to escape violence. In contrast, the Border Patrol agents apparently started off by asking: “Why did you chose this particular time to make your journey to the United States?” This is the question to which interview subjects responded that they hoped to get “free passes.”

The second most common reason for leaving “at this particular time” was “related to the increased gang-related violence in Central America,” the interview report says. “Many subjects stated gang members were extorting them, if they had a small business, or forcing their minor children to join their gang. They felt they were in danger if they remained in their country and decided to immigrate.” A third reason many immigrants gave was that “they had only recently secured sufficient funds to make the journey to the United States.”

It was at this point that the agents finally asked the immigrants a general question about root causes: “What factor(s) influenced your decision to migrate to the United States?” Having already discussed the permisos, the immigrants naturally brought them up again and then talked about poverty and violence. From this the agents concluded that the permisos were the “primary reason.” The EPIC report then repeated the phrase “primary reason,” implying that it referred to DACA and immigration reform.

Repeating the Amnesty Distortion?

The omissions and distortions in the EPIC report continue a long history of distortion by immigration opponents. For decades they have claimed that the 1986 amnesty for undocumented immigrants caused the dramatic upsurge in unauthorized immigration during the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, demographic studies found that the amnesty program had no long-term effect on the increase.

Despite the lack of evidence, the supposed link between legalization and increased immigration has entered popular culture, and for many people the very word “amnesty” has become a sort of obscenity.

Will this happen again with the child migration “crisis”? The political context is very different now. Immigrants have become more vocal and militant, as we saw in the massive May 1 demonstrations in 2006 and as we continue to see in the actions of the youth activists known as Dreamers. The claim that the child migrants came because of DACA and the possibility of immigration reform has met with a vigorous response. Back in June labor journalist David Bacon pointed to evidence that the Border Patrol was collaborating with to manipulate public opinion. Since then, experienced observers of Central America like Judy Ancel, Dan Beeton, Laura Carlsen, Dana Frank, and Ryan Grim and Roque Planas have emphasized the primacy of violence and poverty as root causes, linking them to the US-funded Central American wars of the 1980s, the US-promoted “free trade” policies of the 1990s and 2000s, the ongoing US-sponsored “War on Drugs,” and the US government’s quick acceptance of the 2009 military coup in Honduras.

Anti-immigrant conservatives probably hurt their own cause when they decided to make an issue of child migration: They may actually have helped start a long-overdue discussion of the link between immigration and US foreign policy.

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