Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford sees poverty behind influx of Central American minors

Oklahoma U.S. representative leads delegation of U.S. lawmakers to three countries over the long weekend. Lankford says “flippant” calls to secure the border won’t solve the problem of illegal immigration.
by Chris Casteel Published: September 2, 2014
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photo - In this Saturday, July 19, 2014 photo, Elsa Lopez, 57, cries as she receives her grandchildren, Sandra, 8, and Cesar, 5, who were deported along with their mother, from the United States a day earlier, in Tocoa, Honduras. Overwhelmed by unaccompanied minors and women with children crossing illegally, U.S. authorities have stepped up deportations back to Central America. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
In this Saturday, July 19, 2014 photo, Elsa Lopez, 57, cries as she receives her grandchildren, Sandra, 8, and Cesar, 5, who were deported along with their mother, from the United States a day earlier, in Tocoa, Honduras. Overwhelmed by unaccompanied minors and women with children crossing illegally, U.S. authorities have stepped up deportations back to Central America. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

— 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.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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