Another Weak GAO Unaccompanied Minors Report

By Dan Cadman on July 31, 2015

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued its second audit report dealing with unaccompanied alien minors in a very short span of time. The first report dealt with domestic processing, detention, and resettlement issues – but overlooked any examination of the fiscal expenditures by resettlement agencies of the billions of dollars provided them by the federal government to help accomplish these tasks. It didn't even name them, referring to them instead as Grantees A through E. Neither did it consider the apparent violation of regulatory requirements imposed on federal agencies to audit any organization receiving over $750,000 yearly.

GAO issued its second report this week, entitled, "Central America: Improved Evaluation Efforts Could Enhance Agency Programs to Reduce Unaccompanied Child Migration". This time GAO goes south of the border to examine federal efforts at reducing the flows northward at their source. All in all, it's not one of GAO's best efforts.

Part of the problem is that GAO seems to be willing to take at face value federal agencies' assertions as to what caused the surge of migrants from the sending countries, primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador: "The recent migration increase was likely triggered, according to U.S. officials, by several emergent factors such as the increased presence and sophistication of human smugglers (known as coyotes) and confusion over U.S. immigration policy."

One doubts that the coyotes are much more sophisticated than they've ever been, which has always been considerable in their game of seeking to outsmart border officers – and it seems, at least to me, that the aliens deciding whether or not to make the trek have had the U.S. government's ineffectual response, which includes a visceral unwillingness to deport, dead to rights. No confusion there at all. How could there be? They watch closely in their villages to see whether anyone is returned with harrowing tales of arrest, detention and removal. There can be precious few of those. On the contrary, they are almost certainly hearing from many friends and relatives the stories of nominal detention, followed by release and resettlement. And soon they will be hearing from those friends and relatives that a court has ordered almost everyone left in detention released, leaving the government with almost no domestic prevention strategies.

The report tells us what we already know, and what has been explored at some length here at CIS and other organizations concerned about lack of immigration enforcement in the United States: that the pace of migration by minors and families remains high, but that our southern neighbors, primarily Mexico, are taking a stronger hand in interdiction of border crossers before they reach our frontier. But GAO leaves it there; they apparently did not explore with U.S. officials whether there is a back-up interdiction strategy should Mexico decide it is no longer interested in doing our immigration enforcement for us on their southern border with Central America.

It is also disappointing that some of the key information to be gleaned from the report has to be done by reading between the lines. For instance, auditors state, "U.S. agencies have located programs based on various factors, including long-term priorities such as targeting high-poverty and -crime areas, but have adjusted to locate more programs in high-migration communities." (emphasis added) This is of signal importance, because it puts the lie to the assertions of advocacy groups that violence and poverty are almost exclusively driving the migration. Clearly not so, if the U.S. government has had to shift its efforts out of the high-poverty / high-crime areas to focus instead on the rural villages which are losing residents by the thousands to the northward journey.

Yet, GAO makes little of that tacit revelation, and in fact spends considerable time quoting statistics from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and other sources and citing anecdotes of interviews with children in the three affected countries. One quote from the report stands out in my mind: "Children also described the ways in which violence leads to migration, such as by making it difficult for them to attend school if doing so requires them to travel from one neighborhood to another and cross a gang border." That sounds to me like parts of Los Angeles or Chicago or many another gang-infested metropolitan area in the United States. These minors, should they head north successfully, may find they've migrated from the frying pan to the fire.

It is not that the crime statistics and anecdotes are irrelevant. But as is evident from the shift of U.S. aid and interdiction programs described earlier, they do not paint an adequate picture of the complex push factors for migration at work. And they don't explain the pull factors, which go far beyond "confusion" or misunderstanding. Aliens are making an extremely rational cost-benefit assessment, and seem to have it nailed: the trip is risky; the reward if I make it, though, is almost certain likelihood I can stay in the U.S. and better my life forever.

The report discusses, although not in detail, U.S. government ad campaigns to persuade individuals not to attempt to go to the United States. Curiously, the 2015 campaign (now discontinued) focused on telling would-be migrants about the president's executive action programs for granting lawful status to illegal aliens in the U.S. Does this not seem a bizarre way to discourage northward migration? Why would intended illegal border-crossing migrants not think they too might benefit from future extensions of or changes to such programs?

Finally, the auditors tell us of DHS's anti-smuggling efforts, which include assertions from one investigator that two of seven smuggling organizations have been dismantled in the matter of the few short months since such efforts began. Call me a skeptic, but where's the proof? Such gangs tend to be incredibly resilient in the same way that drug cartels and terrorist organizations are—killing the many-headed Hydra is always difficult. What is more, such assertions don't match the reality here at home. It seems self-evident that the anti-smuggling efforts domestically should be at least as robust as those undertaken abroad. GAO makes no analysis of this disconnect, yet DHS's own statistics prove it. As I reported in an earlier posting:

  • According to internal ICE statistical reports, in federal fiscal year (FFY) 2014, there were 1,140 convictions for alien smuggling. ICE was responsible for initiating only 338 of them, which is less than 30 percent.

  • ICE reports also reflect that for the first half of FY 2015 (which began last October 1), the figures are even more abysmal: There have only been 289 alien smuggling convictions through March, of which ICE initiated 77 — less than 27 percent.


In sum: we now have two mediocre immigration-related reports in a row from GAO. This is not a good sign. Perhaps they need to reshuffle the team responsible for doing this work. Or, on the other hand, one wonders whether GAO has tucked in its horns because the subject matter is so politically divisive that the organization's own mandarins don't want to upset either side of the aisle in the Senate or the House of Representatives (GAO is not an executive agency; it is a legislative agency responsible to Congress).

I'm imagining a third report named using the typically dry government-ese GAO itself uses: "Government Accountability Office: Intestinal Fortitude Would Improve Auditing Efforts Where Immigration Matters Are Concerned".