The perverse incentives of 'catch-and-release' at the southern border

Felipe Gomez Alonzo is the 8-year-old boy who died in U.S. custody on Christmas Eve. Yesterday a New Mexico medical examiner determined that Felipe had the flu, though his exact cause of death hasn’t been determined yet. But the Washington Post makes it clear that one major reason Felipe’s father brought him along on the trip to the U.S. border was his belief that having a child along would ensure he was released into the U.S. once he’d been picked up crossing the border:

Word spread through the impoverished village in the western highlands of Guatemala: Migrants traveling with a child are likely to make it past the Border Patrol and into the United States.

Agustin Gomez Perez was 47 and in debt, and that path would only deepen his obligations. But like others in the rural farming village of Yalambojoch, he decided that traveling with a child was the only way out.

He and his wife chose 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo for the journey because he was one of three sons, and the couple had only one daughter together.

Felipe was eager to go, an older stepsister who also lived with them said in a phone interview Thursday. He was excited to attend school, find a new home and buy clothes for his siblings. He also wanted a new bicycle, like a boy in the village purchased with money sent after his father went to work in the United States.

Thursday, Reuters published a story which goes into a bit more detail about why migrants believe bringing children with them will help them:

Marta Larra, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry, said smugglers known as “coyotes” often encourage migrants to take children as a form of “visa.” Many coyotes, she noted, are trusted by migrant families, so their word carries weight.

But Lucas Perez, the mayor of Yalambojoch, said some coyotes are only interested in ripping off people. Still, for many migrants trying to cross the U.S. border, taking a child along was the “only option,” he told Reuters…

Agustin Gomez, the boy’s father, has two brothers in the United States he hoped to meet, his wife said…

Under U.S. law, families from countries that do not border the United States cannot be immediately deported, and because of a longstanding legal settlement, there are restrictions on how long U.S. authorities can detain migrant children.

As a result, families with children are often released to await an immigration court hearing, which can be scheduled well into the future due to ballooning backlogs.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to reverse the policy, which he calls “catch and release,” but has been blocked by lawsuits in federal court.

Is this true? Yes, according to another Washington Post story published in October. Migrants from Central America have learned that bringing children to the border makes it extremely unlikely they will be deported and they are taking advantage of that. So while the number of illegal immigrants captured at the border is still low by historical standards, the number of families and asylum claims is at record highs:

Families are coming in caravans and on their own because it works. Only 1.4 percent of migrant family members from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the border illegally in 2017 have been deported to their home countries, according to DHS officials.

The United States has neither the detention space nor the legal authority to hold children long enough to process their parents’ claims, so families are typically released from custody to await court hearings that could be months, even years, into the future…

As asylum officers and immigration judges reject more claims, the number of single adults who arrive claiming fear of persecution is dropping. The fastest-growing portion comprises parents coming with children, preventing their long-term detention and significantly reducing the likelihood they will be deported.

Last month, border agents arrested 16,658 individuals who arrived as members of “family units,” an all-time high, up from 9,247 in July.

Because of the death of Felipe and another young girl earlier this month, there are now calls from Democrats for a broad congressional investigation.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the incoming speaker, also called for a congressional investigation into the deaths.

“Democrats call on Homeland Security’s Inspector General to immediately open an investigation into Felipe Alzono-Gomez’s death,” she said in a statement. “The Congress will also investigate this tragedy and the heartbreaking death of Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, to seek justice and ensure that no other child is left to such a fate.”

Some voices on the left are calling for a “truth commission” to investigate claims of abuse, many of which date back to the Obama administration. There’s no doubt that the death of a child in U.S. custody at any time is cause for concern and that two deaths raise the possibility that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

But it seems likely those changes won’t address the real driver of this problem which isn’t just economic opportunity but a belief that having a child with them gives migrants an advantage. If Democrats really want to know what led to these deaths, at least part of the investigation should be focused on the perverse incentives created by our current system. In Felipe’s case, that seems to be the ultimate answer to why he wound up 1,000 miles from home, worn out, and sick. That doesn’t make his death any less of a tragedy, but it does suggest that if we’re looking for systemic problems that create risks to Central American children we have to do a lot more than blame the border officials who do their best when these kids finally stagger across the border.