June 22, 2014

U.S. mayors call for urgent immigration reform

Leaders call the surge of unaccompanied children crossing into U.S. border towns a humanitarian crisis.

Reacting to the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the United States border illegally, mayors from across the country renewed their call to lawmakers for urgent immigration policy reform.

The United States Conference of Mayors’ Immigration Reform Task Force, which met Sunday in Dallas, is counting on the humanitarian crisis in Texas and other border states to spark bipartisan action in Washington to address not only the influx of undocumented child immigrants crossing the Rio Grande Valley daily but the 11 million people already believed to be in the country illegally.

“Clearly when kids are involved it becomes much more emotional. It adds credence to the fact that we need to do something urgently, not punishment but help. These people are in some way being oppressed in other countries and are fleeing here asking for help. It’s a tragedy,” Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said. “I don’t think this is totally a federal problem. I think it’s all of our problem. We need to understand these are human beings.”

The number of unaccompanied children entering the country illegally has increased 92 percent in the past fiscal year, R. Gil Kerlikowske, United States Customs and Border Patrol commissioner told the task force of mayors. While the Department of Health and Human Services typically serves between 7,000 and 8,000 unaccompanied child immigrants a year, that number is expected to jump to 60,000 this fiscal year. The majority are teenage males coming through the Rio Grande Valley from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“It’s been called a humanitarian crisis. That definition is absolutely proper,” Kerlikowske said.

Many in those Central American countries are fleeing gang violence, Kerlikowske said.

Raul Salinas, mayor of Laredo and Immigration Reform Task Force co-chair, said it has been heartbreaking to see how many families are trusting human smugglers to take their children on dangerous, sometimes fatal journeys to what they hope will be a better life.

“Fixing our broken immigration system is critically important for our nation, our economy and all our people,” Salinas said.

Communities have to provide services to residents regardless of their legal status, Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson told the task force.

About 19 percent of Arlington’s 370,000 residents are foreign-born and 27 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to Census figures. Many first- and second-generation immigrants may distrust law enforcement based on their experiences from their countries of origin, Johnson said. That’s why it’s important for cities, even far from the borders, to build trust within ethnic communities.

About 16 percent of Arlington’s violent crime victims and 10 percent of property crime victims so far this year have been Hispanic, Johnson said.

“There are two important things we must consider. Do we have an under-reporting of crime, particularly violent crime, based on a person’s distrust of the system or fear of immigration status? The other thing we must consider is, are you at a higher risk of being targeted as a potential victim by a suspect because they are banking on the fact that you won’t report based on a residency status?” Johnson said.

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