WASHINGTON - Hundreds of immigrant families caught illegally crossing the Mexican border told U.S. immigration agents they made the dangerous journey in part because they believed they would be permitted to stay in the United States and collect public benefits, according to internal intelligence files from the Homeland Security Department.
The interviews with immigrants by federal agents were intended to help the Obama administration understand what might be driving a puzzling surge in the numbers of border crossings that started over the summer.
The explanations suggest the U.S. government's efforts to discourage illegal crossings may have been unsuccessful. Its efforts have included public service campaigns in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to highlight the dangers and consequences of making the trek across Mexico to cross illegally into the United States.
The Associated Press obtained copies of the interview summaries, which were compiled in reports by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Intelligence. They said hundreds of people traveling as part of families consistently cited opportunities to obtain permission to stay in the U.S., claim asylum and receive unspecified benefits. Immigrants spoke of "permisos,'' or a pass to come into the United States.
The report "is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the situation,'' said department spokeswoman Marsha Catron, adding that troubles in the immigrants' home countries likely contributed to their flight as well.
Although the Obama administration has explained that immigrants who cross the U.S. border illegally can be deported, lengthy backlogs of more than 456,000 cases mean that immigrants can effectively remain in the U.S. for years before a judge decides whether they should leave the country. Also, recent court rulings have complicated the government's plans to hold families in immigration jails pending deportation proceedings. Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally generally are not eligible for public benefits, except that children may receive free or reduced meals in public schools.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the rising number of border crossings by families and children was due to "push factors'' in Central America, such as crime and violence. He said the Obama administration wants to invest $1 billion in Central America to address the underlying problems that push families and children out of Central America.
"We need to expand on this and ... we need to make the hard investment,'' Johnson said Thursday at an academic conference at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Federal agents interviewed 345 people traveling with family members between July 7 and Sept. 30, according to the five-page report obtained by the House Judiciary Committee and shared with the AP. The interviews did not focus on what prompted the immigrants to leave their home countries, though many did mention gang and family violence as factors.
"This internal Border Patrol document shows that the Obama administration's lax immigration policies are the culprit for the ongoing surge at our borders,'' said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Last year, the Obama administration coped with an unprecedented spike in children and families. By the end of the 2014 budget year, more than 136,000 people traveling as families and unaccompanied children had been caught crossing the border illegally. The numbers had dipped this year, with 79,808 people caught at the border. But the figures surged again during the last three months of this budget year.
Although the administration opened two new detention centers in Texas to hold thousands of immigrants, a federal judge in California ruled in August that the facilities violated a long-standing legal agreement that stipulates that immigrant children cannot be held in unlicensed secured facilities. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the department to release the children, with their mothers when possible, "without unnecessary delay'' and gave the department until this month to comply.
The administration has appealed that ruling, though before Gee's order was issued, Johnson had already announced plans to make it easier for families to be released on bond after being caught at the border.
Most of the immigrants interviewed, or 181 of them, said reports about the release of immigrant families influenced their decision to come to the U.S.