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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Customs & Border Protection Launches "Know the Facts" Awareness Campaign

U.S. Customs & Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske; U.S. Department of State Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Francisco Palmieri
Washington, DC
August 21, 2015

10:00 A.M. ED


MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today’s briefing will cover the Know the Facts Awareness Campaign, a joint effort between the United States Department of State and the United States Customs and Border Protection. We have two speakers here with us today, the Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske of the Customs and Border Protection, as well as Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

So we’ll being with remarks from the commissioner.

MR KERLIKOWSKE: Good. Well, thank you very much, all of you, for being here, and I’m very pleased to be here with my partner from the Department of State also. And as Alexis said, this is a joint campaign. It’s gone on, by the way, for many years. But the last several years it’s taken on new prominence, greater importance, and greater focus and a different message. And it’s called Know the Facts because we’re all very much concerned with people who travel and making sure that their – that safety is paramount for this.

So the Know the Facts campaign that is rolling out in the Spanish language radio spots in Mexico as well as television and radio spots in Central America, along with posters – and you have some examples here, and we’re going to show you an example when we conclude our remarks, along with a very robust social media, online website, et cetera. So it’s designed to increase awareness of the United States immigration policies and the law and enhanced enforcement efforts that Customs and Border Protection, that I represent, is implementing on our southern border. It’s intended to reach undocumented individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, to discourage them from making the trip north.

The journey, as all of us know, can be very dangerous, and there is not really a day or a week that goes by that our United States border patrol agents are not involved in rescuing someone or, unfortunately and sadly and quite tragically, finding the remains of someone who has attempted to make this dangerous crossing.

The campaign is intended to educate all potential migrants, as well as immigrants here in the United States who might be tempted to encourage family members and friends to migrate to the United States illegally. We want to emphasize that the immigration policies announced last year by President Obama do not provide any new relief to people who cross the border illegally. While the background for some of this is certainly that last year we saw an unprecedented surge in the number of unaccompanied children and family, tens of thousands of them – particularly from those three Central American countries, and very much coming into the area of the Rio Grande valley in Texas.

So far this year we have not seen a return in the spike in migration. The numbers, in fact, don’t even come close. In Fiscal Year 2014 through the month of June, apprehensions on our southern border were at 381,000. Through the month of June – so, this fiscal year – our apprehensions on the southern border at – are about 242,000. That is a 36 percent decrease. And of course, we’ve also seen a reduction in the number of unaccompanied children that have come through. If the pace continues, and we certainly hope it will, through the last of this fiscal year, that total number that I was just talking about will be the lowest since the 1970s. It’s imperative that we make sure people understand our policies and the consequences of trying to enter the United States illegally.

So let me tell you the facts. The journey north is not worth the risk. It’s dangerous. Human smugglers, called coyotes, will say and do anything to profit from the misery of these migrants, and that includes lying about immigration policies. It’s especially hazardous for children, as I saw in my many trips to McAllen, Texas last year. They are vulnerable to trafficking schemes by adults who are eager to exploit them. And the trains, for example – as we’re all very familiar with “La Bestia” – are often packed with individuals who then, of course, suffer injuries and, of course, have also been killed as they tried to board that train.

Individuals who enter the United States illegally today are more likely to be removed, regardless of age, if they don’t qualify for humanitarian protection. The portion of the President’s 2014 executive action that involved what may have been termed by some, and I’ll use the quotes, “forgiveness” – specifically the deferred action for childhood arrivals and the deferred action for parental accountability – do not apply to recent or future border crossers. And that goes back to January of 2014.

Moreover, these provisions are currently the subject of litigation in federal court. But the message is clear: The United States is prioritizing the immediate repatriation of any person who attempts to cross our borders without proper documentation. There are no permisos, and we want people to know the facts.

MR PALMIERI: Good morning everyone. Thank you, Commissioner Kerlikowske, for inviting me here today to participate in the rollout of the Know the Facts campaign. Last year, as many of you are aware, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children left their homes in Central America to make the journey to the United States. This flow of young people is a sign of worsening conditions in the region that the United States must address in a comprehensive way – using our foreign assistance, promoting economic integration, strengthening security of our borders, and delivering clear messages that help inform potential immigrants about the facts.

Even as we made progress this year, thousands of more children have made the journey north. It is a journey that remains very, very dangerous for children and adults alike. And as you just heard the commissioner say, for those that eventually make it to our borders without documentation, there are no permisos that will allow them to remain here.

We recognize the underlying causes that are driving undocumented migrants – insecurity, high levels of violence, lack of economic and educational opportunities, endemic poverty are ongoing challenges in the Northern Triangle in particular of Central America. But we are encouraged by the efforts to date by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who are coordinating closely together and have developed their own Alliance for Prosperity plan to address these issues with their own resources.

The United States, though, is also committed to working with these governments and the people of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico to find solutions to the humanitarian situation that has arisen at our border, but also to address the factors that affect migration from Central America. The progress we are making is because all of these countries have stepped up their own efforts to warn their citizens of the dangers, pursue alien smugglers in their own countries, and strengthen their own borders to reduce the flow.

President Obama’s strategy for U.S. engagement in Central America is designed to address these underlying factors. Under the strategy, we are prioritizing three interconnected objectives: prosperity, governance, and security. The President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request seeks $1 billion for Central America to implement this strategy and to work in concert with the Alliance for Prosperity. We will use this money to expand programs like our model police precinct programs that are already underway, programs that train and professionalize police while also building stronger ties between the police and the communities they serve – economic investments that will help create jobs. In the first five years of its existence, this model precinct program is helping reduce violence – violent crime in the areas where it operates, and our assistance with program will help expand it. As I said, the $1 billion will help us do critical work in partnership with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Finally, let me say that it will not be easy to turn these things around quickly, but our programs show that it is possible. This campaign is part of an integrated whole-of-government approach to the undocumented migration challenges, and we are using all of the tools we have available for – to us. For example, those children who have a parent already fully present, lawfully present in the United States, since December 1st of last year there is an alternative to this dangerous and undocumented journey. There is an in-country refugee and parole program that allows parents to request that their children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras be considered for refugee status. This will allow them to be legally reunited with their parents in the United States. Children who do not – who are not eligible for refugee status but are at risk of harm may also be considered for parole, which will also allow them to arrive legally.

So it is critical that we get this message out, know the facts, know that there are no permisos, know that undocumented migrants will be given priority for removal, and know that the United States continues to work with the governments in the region and our civil society partners on addressing the underlying factors driving so much of the migration today. Thank you very much.

MR KERLIKOWSKE: I think we’re going to see a spot now. We’ll take a look at the campaign.

I think we’re happy to take a few questions. And by the way, the phraseology, the wording, et cetera, has been done specifically for each of the countries that we’ve been talking about. But the theme is very much still the same.

MODERATOR: Before we open it up to questions, just want to remind everyone, please state your name and your outlet before asking.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Luis Alonso with the AP. Many thanks for this. Several questions just to clarify: For how long this campaign will go on? Is this the first TV spots that are – is the first campaign with TV spots since the spike last year? Why it took so long if it’s the first time?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: So, two things. One is it started July 20th and it’ll run through --

PARTICIPANT: The 5th of October.

MR KERLIKOWSKE: -- through October 5th. We’ve done this campaign for many years. The campaign theme traditionally, up until the last two years, had been about the dangers of crossing and the fact that not only are you subjected to a very harsh terrain and a harsh environment, but also given the number of times that people have reported being attacked, assaulted, held hostage, et cetera. So it’s dangerous (inaudible). But the second part is that this campaign over the last several years has also said that even if you enter the country, you will not be allowed to stay.

QUESTION: But this is the first TV campaign since the spike last year?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: We do it – we’ve done it every year. We did it last year and we do it during the window, during the time that we have seen traditionally the beginnings of any increases in people attempting to enter the United States. So it doesn’t run all year long. It would be difficult to do that.

QUESTION: But if the numbers – the trend is downward --


QUESTION: -- the numbers are going down, why they need to do this again?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: Well, we think it’s important because when we look at the several hundred people that die, when I look at the reports that the United States Border Patrol receives when people turn themselves in about how they’ve been abused, women who have been sexually assaulted, et cetera, it’s – I mean, it’s very much the right thing to do on the part of law enforcement and the United States Government to warn people about this, not to do this.

MR PALMIERI: We also know that the coyotes, the alien smugglers, adapt their messaging from year to year, and we want to make sure that we are consistently delivering clear, accurate information from the United States Government.

MODERATOR: You had a question?

QUESTION: Thank you. Silvia Ayuso from El Pais newspaper. So a couple of questions on that: Is this first – are these messages a bit different from others you – have you changed the message as well? And second, I understand the dangers of a journey, but we’re having – I mean, Salvador, the news today, so the violence has spiked since – levels that they hadn’t seen since the ’80s. In Honduras, they’re having corruption problems, which is leading also to more complicated relations in the society. Guatemala is also facing elections with a lot of corruption charges. How can you – I mean, there is a spike also of violence as far as that. And so how can you tell people who are seeing this increase of promise from one – from last year to this year – how can you convince them that it’s less – it’s not worth the dangerous --


QUESTION: -- trip if they’re dying in their streets. I mean, the problem is how can you convince them that this is even worse idea than living in their – staying in their countries?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: Your point is absolutely a – I mean, spot on. I sat in our holding cells in several border patrol stations and met with families and met with children, et cetera, who were fleeing violence. They were also fleeing for other reasons, but those fleeing violence, and they would talk about that and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. And it was heartbreaking to our border patrol agents who were busy trying to give them food, assistance. And of course, they had been told once you get into the United States, the first person that you should turn yourself in to is someone in a green uniform, because you’ll be protected, you will – et cetera.

I think the key is – and I’m certainly going to let my partner talk about this – but the key is that the United States wants to work and help. And I know this as a police chief for many years: I would much rather have prevented a crime than having to respond to the crime after it occurred, no matter how good a job we did responding. Preventing the crime by seeing safety, security, the economy, educational opportunities be improved in those three Central American countries is a key.

MR PALMIERI: And I think the reason the State Department is here at the table is that it reflects the need for a comprehensive solution to these migration flows, that it can’t just be an effort at our border. We need to communicate clearly in the region and we need to use this new strategy that the President has put in place to help the Central American nations themselves with a billion dollars in foreign assistance to develop programs that create better job opportunities, that address these violent conditions in the country. And we think that while we have made investments in security, we now need to bring some assistance to the table to help job creation.

QUESTION: Just a little follow-up, you’re saying – but that’s the message that you should be heading to Congress, not to – I mean, the billion dollars, it’s been stuck at Congress, not in --

MR PALMIERI: No, but I think what I’m – my point is, is that it’s an integrated approach that the U.S. Government is taking to help in the region address these underlying conditions that are driving the migration. And we are prepared to do our part and to offer a better alternative to the dangerous journey.

QUESTION: I have a – well, hi. My name is Beatriz. I work for EFE. I have a question for each of you. For Gil, I wanted to ask you – I have understood that there has been a peak of the cross of immigration – undocumented immigrants in July. That’s something that Ronald Vitiello said in his declaration (inaudible) California. So I don’t know if you have been monitoring this situation. Is there – has been really an increase, how many people have crossed the border in July, and if this tendency is continuing in August?


QUESTION: And for Francisco, I would like to ask you – you talk about this program that you announced in December for immigrant children born in Central America and their parents are here. How many applications have you received? Thank you.

MR KERLIKOWSKE: So our July numbers did increase. But given the entire year so far, compared to last year and compared to last summer, our numbers are still down significantly. So we watch it very carefully. We’re certainly concerned. But the increase in comparison with last year is still much smaller.

MR PALMIERI: Thank you for the question about the – what we call the in-country processing program in Central America. Again, this challenge of undocumented migration flows requires a comprehensive solution, a whole-of-government approach. And one of the tools is this effort to open up the ability for people in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to be able to apply directly for refugee status. We’ve had about 3,500 applications so far this year. Whenever you stand up a new program like this when you’re taking the applications outside the United States, there is a period for which we both have to penetrate the message here in the United States so that the diaspora families here know that it’s available, and then help work in the region to actually get people into the system, make the applications, and then be processed and interviewed.

We never anticipated in the first year that this program would be very, very large and these numbers track what we anticipated.

QUESTION: Thank you. Diana Castaneda from NTN24. About those numbers, how many children – I mean undocumented children – are under that refugee program now? It’s the 350? And if you have numbers of the past year, fiscal year?

MR PALMIERI: Yeah. We’re still in the middle of a fiscal year and they’re still accepting applications, and the program has reached about 3,500 applications – mostly from El Salvador but we do see a sizable number from Honduras, and interestingly, Guatemala has the smallest number. But we’re still developing those numbers and we anticipate additional applications through the rest of the fiscal year.

MODERATOR: A few more questions?

QUESTION: Yes, my name is Ruben Barrera with the Mexican news agency, Notimex. I have two questions. The one is – first one is on what you said or what the campaign said about the –an expedite process to deport the people who is apprehended at the border. And just wonder, I mean, the way that you present it, you’re talking about these people are going to have a due process or it’s going to be a summary deportation?

And the second one is the federal government is fighting right now an order from a federal judge to stop detaining families, to stop sending these families to these immigration centers. One of the things you emphasized in this campaign is trying to dispel any misinformation from the people who are thinking of coming to this country saying, okay, don’t bother to come here because there is no promise for you to stay. But what do you think is going to be the impact if finally the federal government is forced to let out these people, these women and children? Don’t you fear that that may send precisely the opposite message when people in El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras know that if they cross the border and they are detained with the children, they won’t be sending – they won’t be sent to these immigration centers anymore?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: So one, it’s – it wouldn’t be – it would be improper for me to, one, speculate on what the decision may be from the courts; and then also to speculate on exactly what, whatever that decision is, how it would be phrased or how it would be interpreted by people, particularly in those three countries.

That said, we do know that people in those countries pay very close attention through social media and others to any changes in immigration policy or immigration law here in the United States. That’s why, regardless, we know that people who enter the country illegally for – are a – if they entered after January of 2014, so well over a year ago, if they enter the country illegally or at any time since, they are a priority for removal.

QUESTION: Beatriz Juez from the German newswire, DPA. I have two questions. This – you say before that you are doing these campaigns for years. Why do you think that they are going to work now, but – because it doesn’t seem that it worked – this campaign works before very well because there were a lot of people coming in. Why do you think that now if can this campaign work? And what happened to the children that came last year? I imagine that most of them, they stay --


QUESTION: -- here in the country? They are still here? So don’t you think it’s maybe people within, if they’re here for two years or maybe we can do the same thing?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: So I think a couple things. One is the process doesn’t change. We haven’t – people can certainly claim credible fear, they can claim – and they can make a claim for asylum, and there is a lawful process in place to do that and to go through that. Even though people who were originally detained and have been placed, as the law requires, in the best interest of the children to some place here in the United States, they’re still given a notice to appear, they’re still given a requirement that they must appear and have a hearing in front of an immigration judge. We also know that the President’s budget in the requests from this Administration have been to increase the number of immigration judges so that those hearings are not as backlogged as they are.

So I think that when we put out this information that you will be a priority for removal, it is an important part along with the dangers of the campaign.

MR PALMIERI: And I think what we’ve seen is we have seen a reduction in the numbers of children making this dangerous journey over the last year, and that’s for many different reasons and many different factors. But again, if we’re going to take a whole-of-government approach, it’s very important that the U.S. Government get this kind of “Know the Facts” campaign message out. The governments in the region themselves – Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala – have their own public awareness campaigns, and it really is important to have official sources of information out there because we do know that people do listen to a wide variety of sources. And if the smugglers, the alien smugglers are the only ones messaging, we run the risk that they will get bad information. And this campaign helps to get accurate information to them.

MODERATOR: We’ll take maybe one or two more questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just maybe we’re in the middle of electoral campaign and the immigration issue is very high in the conversation among the candidates, and there is a lot of candidates that are pushing for tougher laws on immigration. Do you think that this might affect somehow, that people will have this efecto llamada, that they’re saying come here before the new president comes? I mean, that this might affect somehow the flow of immigrants in the coming – as long as President Obama is in charge?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I mean, I think it’s probably – I mean, we have a number of candidates, and I’ve been asked at a number of news conferences from Chicago to Texas to California to comment about what a particular candidate says about what the future of immigration law would be under – if, in fact, he or she were elected. And so we very much refrain from commenting on those level of specifics.

But when I look at my year and a half as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and having the requirement for border security, I also see very much and understand very much in meeting with lots of people that they are attempting and want to come very much for the same reasons that people have come to this – entered this country for hundreds of years. They want a better life for themselves, for their children, a better economy. They want to live in safety and security. And I think that’s the promise that America has regardless of a particular presidential campaign.

QUESTION: May I have a follow-up on that? One of the things also that we have been hearing constantly in the political campaign is this notion – and apparently, people are buying it – that the border is not secure, that instead of a reduction of illegal crossings that more people is coming into this country. So the question for me is – I mean, why do you think that despite all this effort there is this notion among a lot of people in this country that the government is not doing a good job? I mean, why – this message, why do you think has not resonated with a strong force so far?

MR KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I mean, I think two things. One is that it’s very difficult for people to come to any understanding or a definition that they can agree upon on what is a secure border. So I was a police chief in two of America’s largest cities for many years, and no one in the city government or no one in the city asked me to have a crime-free city. They did not expect the city to have that – not to have any crime. They expected me to have as – a police department that could respond, that was professionally trained, that protected people’s civil rights and civil liberties, and that we would do everything to, one, as Francisco said, prevent crimes and prevent illegal immigration; and two, to respond professionally.

That’s very much the same way with the border. If you look over these last 10 years and at this level if our numbers hold – and I very much believe they will for the end of the fiscal year – we will have some of the lowest apprehensions in – since the 1970s. That is a dramatic decrease. Now you combine that with the fact that when you talk to the police chiefs and the sheriffs of all along the borders from Texas through Arizona through New Mexico to California, those border cities, whether it’s El Paso, San Diego, or others, those border cities have some of the lowest crime rates of any city in America. There are many mayors and police chiefs in middle America that would be very pleased to have as low a crime rate. So our numbers of apprehensions are way down. Crime levels along the border with Mexico in the United States are very low, and I think we just have to continue to help people understand that we have more technology, more people along the border now for border enforcement than we have ever had. And hopefully we’ll try to get that message out around the noise that actually accompanies these discussions about border security.

So thank you very much.

QUESTION: If Congress ends up appropriating less than the 1 billion – the Appropriations Committee in the Senate only approve half, how would that impact this whole-government strategy? If it’s half the money, it’s half the effect as well – half the impact?

MR PALMIERI: The important thing is the President’s strategy recognizes that we can help secure the border by also having programs in the region itself that are helping promote prosperity, governance, and security. And working in partnership with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala on this alliance for prosperity, we can address some of the conditions in these countries and create better economic opportunity, better educational opportunity, reduce poverty, and keep people and give people a reason to stay in their home communities.

So it’s a part of that effort, and we’re going to continue to work with Congress to try to get as much of that effort funded as we can this year.


MODERATOR: We’ll have to wrap up here, actually. Thank you, everyone, for joining.

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