The number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has skyrocketed in recent months. So much so that officials in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors made it a topic of discussion on Sunday.
In his border community of Laredo, Mayor Raul Salinas sees the challenge up close. He said the latest surge in children coming into the U.S. alone is alarming. So far this year, about 52,000 kids have been caught crossing the border.
“It is a very difficult situation,” said Salinas, a former FBI agent. “It’s indeed a crisis.”
Salinas, who co-chairs the immigration reform task force, said he didn’t expect such a high number, and he thinks the situation will only get worse. Many of the children are leaving their home countries to escape violence and avoid getting recruited into gangs. Many of them are from Central America.
“And that’s very difficult -- when you see the eyes of those folks, especially the little ones,” Salinas said. “I know that most of y’all have children. When I saw those kids, it really breaks your heart and I think we need to do something about it.”
What exactly can be done? Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, pointed to a recently-launched ad campaign in El Salvador. It stresses the dangers of children leaving their countries alone or traveling with a human smuggler. It also points out what those coming north should not expect.
“I think that this does not a guarantee a path to citizenship,” Kerlikowske said. “It is absolutely a bar to citizenship, entering the country illegally.”
Kerlikowske said federal officials also need help from state and local agencies. Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson was among the local panelists who talked about the impact this issue is having in his community.
“And the challenge that I have, that this topic brings, is to what degree is there an underreporting of crime within the community out of fear of immigration status?” Johnson asked.
He explained that underreporting can mean the immigrant community isn’t getting the services or police protection it needs.
Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, who also sat on the panel, said the surge in unaccompanied children is something everyone should be concerned about.
“I think it’s your problem, my problem, the fed’s problem. We all have to work at it in a logical way,” Cluck said. “These are human beings, by the way, and they do have the same feelings that you have and I have. They do have the same worry about food, health and we need to help them in a positive way but yet solve the problem.”
Recently, about 150 mayors from around the country signed a letter urging the U.S. House to take action on comprehensive immigration reform. They say it’s a security and a health concern.