WASHINGTON — After seeing the extreme poverty driving thousands of people from Central America to the United States, Rep. James Lankford said Tuesday that “flippant” calls to secure the U.S. border weren’t enough to solve a complicated problem.
“It was pretty clear you’re not going to be able to secure the border enough” to prevent some of those fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from getting into the United States and reuniting with family members, Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said in an interview.
Lankford led a delegation of seven U.S. House members — four Republicans and three Democrats — to the three Central American countries from which tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have fled in recent years, and especially the past several months — to seek better lives in the U.S..
Earlier this summer, the federal government ran out of shelter space for the minors and housed some temporarily on domestic military bases, including Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Lankford said the lawmakers — who were in the region from Friday until Monday — asked government and religious officials in the countries what caused the massive influx earlier this year. They heard repeatedly, he said, that President Barack Obama’s decision in 2012 to defer deportments of minors already in the United States led smugglers to advertise the policy as a prime opportunity.
The stream has abated in the past couple of months, Lankford said, because Mexico has been more aggressive in stopping the Central Americans before they reach the U.S. border and because the summer heat is a deterrent.
The conditions in the three countries are not identical, said Lankford, who visited the three for the first time. The large majority of those fleeing Guatemala, he said, are from rural areas; in El Salvador, the problems are more associated with urban gangs and violence, he said.
Even the prospect of living with eight other people in a small house in the United States is “a big step up” since they’ll have air conditioning, running water and possibly a job, Lankford said.
President mulls action
“They still see us as a beacon of hope,’’ he said.
Many have relatives already living illegally in the United States that tell them work is available if they can just get to the United States, Lankford said.
Republicans have generally reacted to the recent influx of Central Americans by calling for the minors to be deported and the border secured so more can’t enter the United States.
The reality, Lankford said, is that few of the minors show up for deportation proceedings once in the United States. And securing the border “is very easy to say. It’s very, very difficult to do.”
At the White House on Tuesday, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president is considering more executive action to address the country’s “broken immigration system” because House Republicans had refused to work on an immigration bill approved last year by the Senate.
Earnest declined to say when the president might make a decision and what action he might take.
Lankford said U.S. policy also needs to address the problems in the four countries from which most illegal immigrants come — Mexico, El Salvador, Guatamala and Honduras.
Lankford is the Republican nominee in the race to replace Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee. Lankford is highly favored to win the seat in the November election.