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In Central America, Attempts To Cross U.S. Border Like 'Feeding Frenzy'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we want to return to a story that's become both a political and a humanitarian crisis. We're talking about the surge of border crossings into the U.S., particularly of unaccompanied children. Yesterday, President Obama met with Texas Governor Rick Perry and faith leaders in the state to talk about the issue. Some are wondering why President Obama didn't take the opportunity to see the situation for himself though, by visiting one of the detention centers or the border itself. We wanted to hear more about how this issue is playing out right now, both in the United States and in Central America, where many of the immigrants are coming from. So we've called Fernando Espuelas. He's host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on the Univision America network. He's interviewed many of the key players in the story on the U.S. side. Also with us is Alfredo Corchado, he's a reporter with the Dallas Morning News. And he's in Honduras, investigating why so many people are leaving for the border right now. And he's with us from there. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: Fernando, let me start with you. Texas Governor Rick Perry met with President Obama yesterday. As we said, there was some toing and froing about whether he'd meet him at the airport or how the meeting would take place, but they worked it out. He's been blasting the president for not visiting the border. And here's Governor Perry on CNN this morning talking about this.


GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: The real humanitarian thing from my perspective is to first not give them reasons to be coming here to begin with. And the other one is to reunite these families together. Not, you know, continue policies that rip these families apart and send children by themselves, or mothers and a baby away from their family. That's - that's not humanitarian.

MARTIN: Now, some are - including Governor Perry - are comparing this to George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina when he didn't go to New Orleans. So the first thing I wanted to start with is - do you think the president should have gone to the border and why do you think he didn't?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think - we're in an election cycle where any picture that is made of the president may be dealing with some of these children - what's he going to do, put on an ugly face and say you shouldn't be here? No. He'll be smiling and welcoming because he's a human being and they're children. And that will be used politically. And I don't think it really resolves anything. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security has been there, according to the president, seven or eight times already. I'm not sure if the president has to be there.

MARTIN: Well, what about that Alfredo Corchado? I mean, Governor Perry and a number of other political leaders - particularly on the Republican side- are saying that it's the president's lax immigration policies that are responsible for this movement of kids across the border. You're there. What are you hearing?

CORCHADO: Well, it's a little bit of everything. I mean, I spent the week trying to get to the bottom of the rumor if you will - the root causes of why the migration now. And it is sort of a feeding frenzy. I mean, it's - obviously, it's been on the front page of the news everyday for the last few weeks. But there is a sense that this is their window that they have to somehow get to the border now before, quote, "the border shuts down again." So, I mean, we're talking to kids with mothers - I was at a bus station - several mothers with their kids and, you know, they keep saying look, we've heard from our trusted smugglers - the coyotes - who have said, you know, this is the time. What's interesting, Michel, is that we are seeing people - there are stepped up efforts to bring people back - minors back. I was at a temporary shelter where you're seeing the numbers increasing. I mean, I think when I was there, there were eight buses packed with people who had just arrived from Mexico. What was fascinating was, you know, I kept talking to mothers and saying - is this the last time you try? One after the other, you know, their response was - I just need a shower. I need to eat. I need to rest for a few hours and then I'm going back again. And that tells you two things - one is they're going to try again, but this time around, it's going to be a lot, lot more riskier because there are countries like Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras - no doubt under pressure from the United States. They're trying to do more to the minors from going back. So it's going to be, I think - I don't think that it's going to stop anytime soon but I think it's going to be a lot harder for people to get across.

MARTIN: But why now? Why do people feel that there is this window that is closing? Is it somehow related to the elections? I mean, why are the coyotes telling them that this is the time to come across?

CORCHADO: Well, there are several reasons. I think the migration - the illegal migration in Honduras has been going on for a while. It has stepped up significantly I think in the last couple of months. And one role that's kind of interesting is the role social media - it's all over social media. I mean, you know, and it's not just the rich or the middle class in Honduras and Central American countries who have access to smart phones. It's very poor. I mean, these people I'm interviewing at bus stations - they have nothing else but they are checking their iPhones. I mean - not their iPhones but their smartphones. And they're trying to, you know, what's the latest - where the coyote will meet them. There's also - there are new discounts that are being offered by these smugglers. There's a family pack. You know, if you bring your family along, it will charge you $6,000 for the entire family - maybe $5,000. But if you want the VIP special, we will get you to Texas, we will offer you three attempts at $5,500 or $7,500, depending on the size of the family. There are all these deals. I mean, it's a feeding frenzy. People feel like this is the moment. They have to do it now because the word is out there - because I think the coyotes are also taking advantage of this sense of vulnerability on the part of these immigrants, who obviously are not doing the right research, who should know that, you know, it's most likely they will be of deported. But nonetheless, they feel that - look, if eight of them are deported or nine of them are deported or nine of them had a terrible journey, I will be the exception. I will somehow get across.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the politics of responding to the surge in illegal border crossings and we're talking about the roots of the crisis. My guests are Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News, who's been reporting on this from Honduras - that's who was speaking just now. Also with us Fernando Espuelas of the Univision America network, who's been reporting on this from the U.S. side.

Fernando, President Obama's asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion to help with this, especially the whole situation with unaccompanied children. And he had remarks after his meeting with the governor - with Governor Perry yesterday - and this is some of what he said.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I emphasized to the governor was - the problem here is not major disagreements around the actions that could be helpful in dealing with the problem. The challenge is - is Congress prepared to act to put the resources in place to get this done? Another way of putting it, and I said this directly to the governor is, are folks more interested in politics or are they more interested in solving the problem?

MARTIN: Is there a difference of opinion about exactly what should happen now? Is their a partisan difference on exactly what you should do?

ESPUELAS: The Republicans have a fundamental problem, which is a political problem, which is that they have blocked immigration reform for years and years and years. And most recently, it's been a year since the Senate passed immigration reform in a bipartisan basis. So beyond whatever their true beliefs are, this is primarily a political issue meant to - and this is something I asked a few members of Congress - are the Republicans - is it fair to say Republicans are using this particular matter to motivate their perhaps most anti-immigrant voters for November?

MARTIN: But Democrats have also been criticizing the president, saying, like, for example, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas has said that the administration is one step behind on the border crisis. What do they want? Like within his caucus, what do they want him to do...

ESPUELAS: Well, I think...

MARTIN: that he is not now doing?

ESPUELAS: Right - so members of Congress are under tremendous pressure from Hispanic activists who are saying that the president is being way too harsh on these children and asking for expedited authority. This bill would also give them some sort of expedited authority to move these kids through the process in a much faster way.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado, some of the money would go to Central America. And I understand your primary focus is talking to the people and understanding, you know, what they're thinking and what they're hearing. But what does the posture of say - of the governments like Honduras, of Guatemala - what's their stance towards this? Are they trying to stop it or do they feel that that's not the responsibility?

CORCHADO: Well, they mostly blame the United States. I mean, they say look, the immigration talk in the United States - it's confusing. And it's leading to misinformation for people in Honduras. At this shelter - I mean, it was interesting - you get there and you're talking to people and, you know, there's promises that once these people come back in buses from Mexico - there's anticipation that maybe they'll offer them a job or help them find a job. But, you know, many of the people I've interviewed said look, I'll I got was a piece of bread and a sandwich and a bus ticket back to my hometown. There's not much there for them. And when I talk to them - look, there's - apparently there's money coming in for Central America. What - how would you like that money to be distributed? And they say look, it's a temporary fix. If you don't get to the root of the failing jobs, education opportunities, training opportunities, you're not going to really solve anything. I mean, just helping train police, militarizing the area, which is really what we're seeing here - I mean it's - a lot of similarities to Mexico. That's not going to take care of the problem. You have get to the root of the problem, create opportunities and try to get people out of poverty and try to get people out of harms way. The impunity rate here, Michel, is just incredible. I mean, more than 95 percent of the people who commit crimes are never really prosecuted. So you kill once, you kill twice - again, it's very - the situation is very similar to Mexico in that respect.

MARTIN: Fernando, final question. You mentioned a number of times that some members of Congress are feeling pressure from their Latino constituents. What kind of pressure? What are people saying?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think that the - there are lots of mixed issues in this. The failure of immigration reform this year has been very disappointing. I think Politico had a poll out about six weeks ago that said that 90 percent of American Latinos favor immigration reform. So you can imagine what this represents.

MARTIN: There are also demonstrations saying - telling people, you know, get out and, you know, get out of the country. So how do you see this...

ESPUELAS: Right, but that's energizing...

MARTIN: ...Shaking out?

ESPUELAS: That's energizing a lot of Hispanics. I mean, there are a lot of people who call me on my show who say they - that they're outraged by people protesting and being aggressive against children. I mean, that's why - I think that's a really loser issue ultimately, politically and from an optics standpoint, for Republicans.

MARTIN: Fernando Espuelas is host of the "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on the Univision America network. He was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Alfredo Corchado is a reporter with the Dallas Morning News. We reached him in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, where he's been reporting on that aspect of the story. Gentleman, thank you both for speaking with us.

ESPUELAS: Thank you so much, Michel.

CORCHADO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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