PALMDALE — Immigration has been an issue at the forefront of national news and politics for several years, and one that is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
Earlier this month, Rep. Katie Hill joined a Congressional delegation visit led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the U.S.-Mexico border to learn firsthand about the factors that are driving immigration from these Central American countries to the United States and what is happening once these immigrants reach the border.
“Having that firsthand experience was incredibly valuable to come back with and hopefully inform our colleagues and also inform the way we try to shape policy moving forward,” the Agua Dulce Democrat said.
The delegation met with activists, government and community leaders in the countries, as well as U.S. diplomats and law enforcement agencies.
The dozen members of Congress on the visit found “people are fleeing for a variety of reasons,” Hill said, with the main factor being the extreme gang violence they face at home. The delegation heard stories of boys as young as eight years old being recruited into gangs, “astronomical” sexual violence against women and young girls, with high rates of pregnancy for girls under the age of 12.
“Parents are fleeing because they don’t feel like they have another option,” she said.
Poverty, exacerbated by the detrimental impacts on agriculture from climate change, is another cause, as is government corruption.
“There’s a lack of hope because people don’t believe their own country is capable of making things better,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars in aid from this country to support programs to help alleviate the root causes of migration have been cut by the Trump Administration in an effort to force their governments to prevent citizens from migrating.
“There are so many programs that were providing incredible help and that were effective, were cost effective, that have been cut off by this administration in terms of trying to withhold aid,” Hill said.
These aid funds were distributed not through the corrupt governments, but primarily through non-governmental organizations, she said.
U.S. agencies “all are saying don’t stop this aid. If you want to make the problem worse, cutting off the aid is the way to do it,” she said.
“I believe strongly that we should be increasing these efforts, not decreasing it and we need to be restoring that aid as quickly as possible.”
Following the visits to the Northern Triangle region, the delegation visited a border facility in McAllen, Texas, where Hill said the process is essentially jail, warehousing individuals until they are processed.
“It’s treating people who are coming across as criminals. I think that, to me, goes counter to what our values are and should be,” she said.
Hill also said she met with border officials who had concerns about the situation and processes.
“I didn’t see cruelty. That wasn’t what I experienced,” she said. “The process is just broken, fundamentally.”
Any kind of long-term immigration reform will need to reframe how immigration is viewed and account for those who are coming as refugees, she said.
“This administration has been truly stoking fear and hatred among (President Donald Trump’s) base,” Hill said. This is “completely counter to us being able to make meaningful changes” and further isolating as a country within the region.
Following the Central America visit, Hill met with immigration activists and elected officials on Thursday to gain their insights into what immigration reform should look like, laying the groundwork for a time when such legislation may be introduced.
Among their concerns, the activists spoke of the pervasive fear in these communities regarding deportation and separating families with parents being sent away from their American citizen children.
“The fear is palpable and it is impacting every aspect of our community, financially, emotionally,” said Ruth Luevanos, a Simi Valley councilwoman and Los Angeles Unified School District teacher. “As a teacher I’m dealing with the trauma of students who are worried if they can come back if they go home.”
This fear applies to those with many forms of immigration status, not only those who are undocumented, including those who came here, sometimes decades ago, under Temporary Protected Status programs that are being considered for termination.
That is the case for Jazmin Caceres, a student at Antelope Valley College, whose parents have told her she will have to take care of her siblings if the TPS program is terminated and they are deported.
“I see so many kids struggling knowing that their parents can be deported,” she said.
Even those who have been naturalized citizens for years fear having their status retroactively stripped, Luevanos said.