HOLDEN — The surge of unaccompanied children is dramatic. Most of the decade, fewer than 4,000 minors from Central America were intercepted. In 2012, it jumped to 10,000, then 20,000 in 2013, 57,000 so far this year, plus 39,000 adults. Numbers are projected to surpass 142,000 next year.

Why now? President Obama initially blamed gang violence. Conveniently, a U.N. report materialized to support this narrative.

But Central American violence is nothing new and was rampant in 2009 when illegal immigration plummeted, as the economy tanked. The story evolves.

The administration now blames the Wilberforce Trafficking Act, which gives new protections to unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries who may be sex-trafficking victims.

Children from Mexico and Canada are processed at the border and removed immediately. President Obama argues that he’s required under this law to resettle Central American children in American communities, providing health care, housing, legal counsel, etc., and holding deportation hearings.

Some legal scholars argue that the Wilberforce Act doesn’t apply to the current situation, and that Obama is misusing the law to expand his political agenda. Nevertheless, with this welcome, the migrants naturally came to believe their deportation papers were actually “permisos” for remaining here. And almost no one is repatriated.

When Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s staff visited the Nogales, Ariz., facility where many children are housed, she reported they were well cared for, and many told her staff they were smuggled over the border because radio ads and religious organizations claimed they wouldn’t be deported.

Major newspapers are now reporting that the surge is largely driven by the widespread perception that migrants will be allowed to stay under the Obama policies. The trafficking laws are not to blame.

Are these perceptions realistic? Yes, the migrants are correct.

The Obama administration radically changed immigration enforcement. Despite claims of “tough enforcement,” under President Obama, deportations have decreased by 40 percent. He gutted worksite enforcement and introduced “prosecutorial discretion,” the idea that he would focus on removing criminals and mostly ignore the ordinary illegal immigrant.

The result was that over the last six years, many illegal immigrants, stopped by police, were simply released if they had no criminal convictions. Border agents labeled these policies “catch and release,” and news of these procedures went back to Central America.

By executive order, Obama also promised deferred deportation and work permits to 800,000 illegal youth, many from Central America. He repeatedly championed amnesty and threatened to bypass Congress, extending his executive order to all illegal immigrants if Republicans continued to obstruct “immigration reform.” Hispanic news outlets followed this subject closely.

In 2010, the Border Patrol union cast a vote of no confidence in Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton, charging that ICE had “abandoned the Agency’s core mission of enforcing United States immigration laws.”

They described how political appointees had defunded effective enforcement measures, spent more time campaigning for amnesty than solving problems and made it impossible for officers to know who they could and couldn’t arrest. Currently, 840,000 illegal immigrants have failed to make their court appearance with no repercussions.

So it’s hardly surprising that parents concluded that hiring coyotes to smuggle their children across the border was worth it. Congress had already passed seven amnesties. Both the migrants and the cartels were expecting Congress to pass another amnesty – otherwise, paying the cartels $7,000 to $10,000 per child would hardly be worth it

As David Frum of The Atlantic writes in “The Made-in-America Immigration Crisis,” decades of lax enforcement produced the latest wave of Central American migrants, and funded the smuggling business for cartels.

The deportation hearings for the migrants probably won’t happen for years. Many will skip court altogether. In the meantime, immigrant advocates will coach others in what to say to claim asylum, dragging out the legal process for years.

Political elites were hoping that “comprehensive immigration reform” would pass, sweeping the chaos under the rug with another blanket amnesty. But it’s not happening.

Everyone wants to prevent this tragedy again. But first, we need to understand how we made it happen, by repeatedly rewarding people for breaking laws, and allowing cheap labor and ethnic lobbies to dominate immigration policy. A confluence of misguided compassion and multiple political agendas has produced a “broken” system. More of the same won’t fix it.

— Special to the Press Herald