WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen this week urged Central American migrants fleeing poverty and violence to seek refuge in nations outside the United States, like Mexico, to avoid the “dangerous journey” north.
She noted that if asylum-seeking Central Americans reach the U.S.-Mexico border, they should “turn themselves in” at official ports of entry, warning that the Trump administration will no longer “exempt” any class or group of migrants who attempt to enter the United States illegally from prosecution.
She pointed out that migrants are often raped, robbed, and even murdered during their “dangerous journey” into the United States, adding:
There are other options aside from the dangerous journey north to our border once that I continue to advocate. If they have a legitimate need to flee their home countries, migrants should seek protection in the first safe country they enter, including Mexico. Not subject themselves to an unnecessarily long and dangerous journey and/or turn themselves into the [official U.S.] ports of entry.
If you are fleeing and you have a need to come to the United States, please come to the ports of entry. You know, we will process your claim there. But if you come across the border illegally, you’ve broken the law and we have to prosecute. It’s the only way to keep our border, to have a border.
So far this year, Mexico is facing a substantial increase in drug-cartel-perpetrated homicides, rendering the country deadlier for civilians than war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) pointed out that Central American migrants could also seek refuge in nearby Costa Rica and Belize, noting that they are “peaceful” countries.
Lankford asked Nielsen, “What’s the belief of why they would come here rather than there for asylum?”
The DHS secretary responded:
What I can say is we encourage anybody who is in fear for their lives to go to the first safe country that they enter. That is the international approach … under our laws, the only way that we can stop people is if we have safe third agreements with other countries. We’re working towards those. We have one with Canada. … We need a third-safe country agreement with Mexico.
The secretary stressed that DHS is embracing a “zero tolerance” for migrants who try to sneak into the United States illegally, telling lawmakers:
I will press forward with tough border security actions and enforcement to the fullest extent of the law. My message to smugglers, traffickers, and criminals is clear: If you try to enter our country without authorization, you have broken the law. The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] has declared that we will have zero tolerance for all illegal border crossings and I stand by that. We are a country of laws.
It is our policy that anyone crossing our border illegally will be detained and referred for prosecution. We will no longer exempt classes or groups of individuals from prosecution, and if they file a fraudulent asylum claim and assist others in doing, they will also be referred for prosecution, convicted, and removed from the United States.
She urged Congress to pass legislation to plug the “dangerous, legal” immigration loopholes that smugglers are taking advantage of “every single day,” explaining:
They [human traffickers] know its easier to get released into America if they claim asylum, if they’re part of a family, or if they are unaccompanied children [UAC]. So it should come as no surprise that we are seeing a spike in all these of categories.
Word is getting out. Asylum claims are up 200 percent in the last five years. Family unit apprehensions are up nearly 600 percent compared to this time last year and UAC apprehensions are up more than 300 percent.
She told lawmakers that there are currently 300,000 asylum claims “currently being processed.”
Nielsen noted that while the arrest of families and unaccompanied children only made up “one out every 10 apprehensions” five years ago, now they “approach almost half” of all apprehensions — about “40 percent.”
Local and federal authorities have warned that gangs such as the murderous Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) have infiltrated the UAC flows and are deploying children from crime-ridden El Salvador to recruit and commit violent crimes on U.S. soil.
To reduce the overall flow of illegal migrants, Nielsen said, “We need to increase the penalty for asylum fraud all that fraud does is ruin the chances of people who really need asylum. We need to change the way in which we process UACs so that we discourage the smuggling and the TCOS [transnational criminal organizations].”
A caravan of more than 1,500 Central American families including men, women, and children have made their way to the southwest border late last month through Mexico.
Nielsen requested funds for U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall intended to deter all illegal cross-border activity and for immigration enforcement operations.