Nearly a year before President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis on the border, a team of experts arrived at the Fort Brown patrol station in Brownsville, Tex., and discovered a makeshift transportation depot for a deluge of foreign children.
Thirty Border Patrol agents were assigned in August 2013 to drive the children to off-site showers, wash their clothes and make them sandwiches. As soon as those children were placed in temporary shelters, more arrived. An average of 66 were apprehended each day on the border and more than 24,000 cycled through Texas patrol stations in 2013. In a 41-page report to the Department of Homeland Security, the team from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) raised alarms about the federal government’s capacity to manage a situation that was expected to grow worse.
The researchers’ observations were among the warning signs conveyed to the Obama administration over the past two years as a surge of Central American minors has crossed into south Texas illegally. More than 57,000 have entered the United States this year, swamping federal resources and catching the government unprepared.
The administration did too little to heed those warnings, according to interviews with former government officials, outside experts and immigrant advocates, leading to an inadequate response that contributed to this summer’s escalating crisis.
Federal officials viewed the situation as a “local problem,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol station chief who led the UTEP study. The research, conducted last year, was funded by the Department of Homeland Security and published in March. A broader crisis was “not on anyone’s radar,” Manjarrez added, even though “it was pretty clear this number of kids was going to be the new baseline.”
But top officials at the White House and the State Department had been warned repeatedly of the potential for a further explosion in the number of migrant children since the crisis began escalating two years ago, according to former federal officials and others familiar with internal discussions. The White House was directly involved in efforts in early 2012 to care for the children when it helped negotiate a temporary shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
“There were warning signs, operational folks raising red flags to high levels in terms of this being a potential issue,” said one former senior federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal operations.
The former official said the agencies primarily in charge of border security, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were “ringing alarm bells” within the administration.
Meanwhile, top officials focused much of their attention on political battles, such as Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and the push to win congressional support for a broad immigration overhaul, that would have been made more difficult with the addition of a high-profile border crisis.
A week later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) wrote a blistering letter to Obama, citing a 90 percent increase over the previous year in the number unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America. If the president failed “to take immediate action to return these minors to their countries of origin and prevent and discourage others from coming here, the federal government is perpetuating the problem,” Perry wrote. “Every day of delay risks more lives. Every child allowed to remain encourages hundreds more to attempt the journey.”
Inside the Obama administration, officials at the Department of Homeland Security were focusing most of their efforts on adults. Janet Napolitano, then secretary of homeland security, implored her counterparts in Mexico to increase border security to reduce the flow. U.S. immigration and border patrol officials created new processing centers, according to current officials and others familiar with the issue.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers began hearing reports of the chaos from nongovernmental organizations and churches with operations in Central America. And they began efforts, in consultation with the administration, to increase federal funding to combat the crisis.
In 2011, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement had a budget of $149 million to shelter and care for the foreign children. By 2013, it had grown to $376 million, and the Obama administration requested $495 million in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said Democrats recognized the urgency but feared that if they raised too much of a public outcry, it would create political blowback for the Obama administration’s push to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Democrats worried that the escalating border crisis would help Republicans make a case that the administration’s policies had failed, Roybal-Allard said.
“That was always a concern of mine: How to address the issue in a way that did not detract from the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
A person involved in the planning said that inside the White House, national security staffers were concerned about the growing influx of children but that the influential team of domestic policy advisers was far more focused on the legislative push.
“Was the White House told there were huge flows of Central Americans coming? Of course they were told. A lot of times,’’ said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Was there a general lack of interest and a focus on the legislation? Yes, that’s where the focus was.’’
Obama, meanwhile, has ended his push for comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress, announcing that he intends to use his executive authority to amend the nation’s border laws.
But the crisis in Texas has complicated that political calculation, with Republicans contending that Obama’s weak enforcement helped create the crisis in the first place.