When asked this very question, hundreds of recently apprehended illegal immigrant families crossing the Mexican border told U.S. immigration agents one of their greatest motivations for making the dangerous journey was based on two principal beliefs. One they thought they would be given immediate permission to stay in the United States and, two; they believed public benefits were waiting for them just for the asking. This information is not opinion, it was gleaned from internal intelligence files from the Department of Homeland Security
The interviews with the immigrant families by federal agents were gathered to help the Obama administration understand what has driven the puzzling surge in sheer numbers of border crossings that began last summer. To counter this surge the Administration has launched service campaigns in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to inform potential border crossers about the dangers and consequences of making the trek across Mexico to cross illegally into the United States.
Understanding that they believe the US will willingly accept them and also provide public benefits explains, at least in part, why these efforts have been unsuccessful and the flow continues unabated.
To verify this account, the American press obtained copies of the interview summaries, which had been compiled in reports by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Intelligence. According to the department, hundreds of people traveling as part of families consistently cited the availability of “easy” permission to stay in the U.S. by claiming their need for asylum and then receive public benefits, including what many believed would be housing, food and even immediate cash in hand. Immigrants frequently spoke of "permisos," or a pass to come into the United States.
To soften the impact of what was discovered in the interviews and allow for further explanations that would better comport with the Administration’s position that the US should accept the migrant flow because immigrants needed asylum for bad conditions is their home countries, the report also noted it was "not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the situation." This was according to department spokeswoman Marsha Catron, who added that troubles in the immigrants' home countries “likely contributed to their flight as well.”
Despite the Obama administration’s explanation that immigrants who cross the U.S. border illegally can be deported, as a practical matter, lengthy backlogs totaling over 456,000 cases insure that immigrants can effectively remain in the U.S. for years until a judge decides whether they should be deported from the US. In addition, recent court rulings have complicated the government's plans to hold families in immigration jails pending deportation proceedings.
Under current law illegal immigrants living in the U.S. are generally not eligible for public benefits, except that children can receive free or reduced meals in public schools. Once again, studies have found that a substantial number of illegals find ways around a system that, according to social workers, was designed to make it “easy to get benefits for US citizens who need to avail themselves of government safety nets. Susan Botchief, who works with immigrant families in Miami, said, “Americans long ago tried to take away the stigma of receiving public assistance so the requirements were softened and illegal immigrants are very adept at gaming the system. Without public assistance many of them would not be able to survive in the US.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson blames the rising number of illegal border crossings by families and children on what he calls "push factors" in Central America, such as crime and violence. Johnson, said the Obama administration would like to invest $1 billion in Central America to help 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 recently at an academic conference at Georgetown University’s Law Center.
In interviews conducted between July 7 and Sept. 30, federal agents interviewed approximately 345 border crossers who had traveled with their families to enter the US. According to a five-page report studied by the House Judiciary Committee which was shared with Press agencies, 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, who chaired the Judiciary Committee.
Last year, the US saw an unprecedented spike in children and families crossing over the border. At the end of the 2014 budget year, more than 136,000 people identified as families or unaccompanied children had been caught crossing the border illegally. While the numbers appeared to drop this year to 79,808 people caught at the border, the figures actually saw another surge during the last three months of the budget year.
There are other complications as well. While the Obama administration recently opened two new detention centers in Texas designed to hold thousands of immigrants, a federal judge sitting in California ruled last August that the facilities violated a long-standing legal agreement that stipulates that immigrant children cannot be held in unlicensed, secured facilities. Based on that ruling, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the department to release the children, with their mothers when possible, "without unnecessary delay." The administration has appealed Gee’s ruling.
Before Gee's order was issued however, Johnson had already announced plans making it easier for families to be released on bond after being caught at the border. Critics of the Administration point to the backlog of deportation cases and say as a practical matter release on bond means those released will effectively be in the US for years without legal status seeking benefits from the social safety net designed for US citizens.
The upcoming US Presidential election has been highly affected by these immigration issues. Candidates from both parties have tried to present their case to potential voters. Democrats seem to favor continued immigration and allowing those who are already here illegally to obtain legal status. Republican candidates are split on the issue with those from states with large Hispanic populations, like Rubio or Bush, favoring looser laws to assimilate illegal immigrants and those perceived as “outsiders” like Trump and Carson, favoring strict border controls and deportation for anyone in the country illegal.
The popularity of both Trump and Carson seem to point to support from voters for securing the borders and deporting illegals. Recent news articles showing increased crime, some violent, from repeat illegal border crossers have bolstered the outsiders support from citizens. In addition, the recent horrific attacks in France from migrants without legal status has inflamed fears that those entering the border may not be safe.
Despite these issues, economics still plays the biggest role in why so many continue to try and enter the US under harsh conditions. Out of the 345 immigrants interviewed, 181 of them, said reports about the release of immigrant families and availability of public benefits heavily influenced their decision to cross the border and come into the U.S.