MISSION, Texas (AP) — Overwhelmed by a surge in illegal immigration, especially by unaccompanied children, the U.S. government has launched a $1 million international media campaign warning families in Central America that it's best to stay at home.
Standing beside the Rio Grande on Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said the message aimed primarily at Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is two-part: The trip to the United States is extremely dangerous, and immigrants who make it here will not be allowed to stay.
"We have to stem the flow," Kerlikowske said.
The effort will test high production value messaging against the pervasive gang violence and intense poverty that pushes many immigrants to flee their homelands.
This week South Texas officials reported that a Guatemalan boy's body was found in the brush about a mile from the Rio Grande. He was trying to reach his brother in Chicago to help support their family in rural Guatemala.
Kerlikowske said that 226 immigrants have died crossing the border since October. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained during the same period after entering the U.S. illegally, mostly in South Texas.
The so-called "Dangers Awareness Campaign" will employ hundreds of billboards and some 6,500 public service announcements for radio and television stations in the target countries.
One offering has an image of a child's footprints in the desert running toward the horizon with the message in Spanish: "I thought it would be easy for my son to get papers in the USA. ... I was wrong."
A television spot slated to air in Guatemala shows a teenage boy preparing to leave home for the U.S. His mother pleads with him not to go. He confides to his uncle — already in the U.S. — in a letter that she's warning him about the dangers of the gangs on the train that immigrants ride through Mexico, the cartels that kidnap and the dayslong walk in the desert. Ultimately, he writes his uncle, "he who doesn't take a chance, doesn't win."
The next image is of the boy dead on the cracked desert floor. A voiceover says smugglers' claims that new arrivals will easily get papers are false. The television and radio spots all finish with a similar parting message: "They are our future. Protect them."
"We want a relative that is about to send $5,000, $6,000 to a relative in El Salvador to see this message and say, 'Oh my god, they're saying that the journey is more dangerous,'" said CBP spokesman Jaime Ruiz. "We try to counter the version of the smuggler."
Ruiz said the campaign is scheduled to run 11 weeks. He will be traveling to cities with large immigrant communities in the U.S. as well to reach the parents or relatives on this side of the border who may help fund a child's trip.