President Obama and his aides have repeatedly sought to dispel the rumors driving thousands of children and teens from Central America to cross the U.S. border each month with the expectation they will be given a permiso and allowed to stay.
But under the Obama administration, those reports have proved increasingly true.
The number of immigrants under 18 who were deported or turned away at ports of entry fell from 8,143 in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, to 1,669 last year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Similarly, about 600 minors were ordered deported each year from nonborder states a decade ago. Ninety-five were deported last year, records show, even as a flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America — five times more than two years earlier — began pouring across the Southwest border.
The previously unavailable deportation data are likely to fuel the political debate over whether Obama administration policies are partly responsible for the 52,000 children and teens who have surrendered to or been caught by Border Patrol agents since last October, spurring fresh concerns about U.S. border security and immigration law.
Most of the minors are being held in Border Patrol stations in Texas and Arizona, and in emergency facilities set up by the Department of Health and Human Services on military bases and other sites. About 11,000, however, were from Mexico and were swiftly bused back across the border, as the law allows.
Obama administration officials deny that lenient policies — including a 2012 program that allowed immigrants who had entered the country illegally as minors before June 2007 to apply for deportation deferrals — have encouraged the sudden surge.
They instead blame a 2008 law signed by Bush that made it nearly impossible to repatriate unaccompanied minors to Central America without letting them appear before an immigration judge.
A mounting backlog in immigration courts since then has allowed most Central American minors to stay for years while their cases wend their way through the legal system. Once they are assigned to social workers, as the law requires, the overwhelming majority are sent to live with their parents or relatives in the United States, officials said.
Organized crime groups in Central America have exploited the slow U.S. legal process and the compassion shown to children in apparent crisis, according to David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland.
He said smugglers, who may charge a family up to $12,000 to deliver a child to the border, often tell them exactly what to say to American officials.
“The cartels have figured out where the hole is,” he said.
About 60 criminal investigators have been sent to San Antonio and Houston to try to infiltrate these networks and prosecute the smugglers who bring the children into the United States, officials said.
Obama last week asked Congress to change the 2008 law to give the head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, greater discretion to send children back to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras more quickly.
But Obama is likely to face stiff opposition from fellow Democrats, who have vowed to block narrow changes to immigration laws. Senate Democrats overwhelmingly backed a comprehensive immigration bill last summer only to see the measure die in the GOP-led House.
“He can’t get it passed,” a senior Democratic staffer in the Senate said of Obama’s request.