What Washington Is Doing About the Kids Who Have Become the Latest Flashpoint in the Immigration Debate

Everyone is scrambling to respond to the unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

Boys wait in line to make a phone call as they are joined by hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children that are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. 
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
June 24, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

Thou­sands of des­per­ate chil­dren have be­come the latest piece of a wrangling match over the polit­ics of im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Chil­dren, in­clud­ing some very young ones, are cross­ing the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der in re­cord num­bers: The num­ber of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors, as they’re called, ap­pre­hen­ded by the Bor­der Patrol is up by nearly 100 per­cent from last year, at 52,193 so far this year and on track to reach 90,000. The rap­id in­crease in chil­dren com­ing is due to a surge from three coun­tries: Hon­dur­as, El Sal­vador, and Guatem­ala, where vi­ol­ence and crime run rampant.

While im­ages of over­crowded hold­ing fa­cil­it­ies have sparked out­rage, con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have seized on the crisis to un­der­score their po­s­i­tion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is too lax when it comes to im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment, so much so that it has en­cour­aged people to send their young chil­dren on a dan­ger­ous jour­ney. For a Wed­nes­day hear­ing, the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee is fram­ing the is­sue as “An Ad­min­is­tra­tion-Made Dis­aster: The South Texas Bor­der Surge of Un­ac­com­pan­ied Minors.”

On the op­pos­ite end, ad­voc­ates and Demo­crats who have been crit­ic­al of the White House’s re­cord on de­port­a­tions ar­gue that what’s at play is a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis, and that lax en­force­ment isn’t the prob­lem — these kids are be­ing caught, after all.

But the White House has ac­know­ledged that ru­mors of kids be­ing al­lowed to stay is fuel­ing the crisis. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden vis­ited Cent­ral Amer­ica last week to high­light the fact that such kids don’t qual­i­fy for DACA, an ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion that de­fers de­port­a­tion pro­ceed­ings for some un­doc­u­mented kids. Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son penned an op-ed in Span­ish-lan­guage me­dia, ur­ging par­ents not to send their kids on the per­il­ous jour­ney to the U.S. “The ma­jor­ity of these chil­dren come from Hon­dur­as, El Sal­vador, and Guatem­ala, where gang and drug vi­ol­ence ter­ror­ize com­munit­ies,” John­son wrote. “To the par­ents of these chil­dren I have one simple mes­sage: Send­ing your child to travel il­leg­ally in­to the United States is not the solu­tion.”

The White House un­veiled a plan Fri­day to ad­dress the situ­ation; it in­cludes adding more im­mig­ra­tion judges to un­clog the back­log of pro­ceed­ings, open­ing new de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies for fam­il­ies, and ex­pand­ing the use of ankle-mon­it­or­ing brace­lets, as an al­tern­at­ive to hold­ing people in fa­cil­it­ies.

And Con­gress is be­gin­ning to act as well. The Sen­ate moved ahead a bill earli­er this month that would de­vote $2 bil­lion — more than double what the pres­id­ent ini­tially asked for — to help house un­ac­com­pan­ied minors.

But the prob­lem is more sys­tem­at­ic than simple over­crowding at fa­cil­it­ies hous­ing chil­dren. A sur­vey of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors con­duc­ted by the U.N. High Com­mis­sion for Refugees found that 58 per­cent of those in­ter­viewed said vi­ol­ence was the reas­on they fled; only nine out of 404 re­spond­ents men­tioned something re­lated to how the U.S. is per­ceived to treat such chil­dren.

The White House has pledged $40 mil­lion to a pro­gram to boost se­cur­ity in Guatem­ala, and $25 mil­lion to help youth in El Sal­vador who are at risk from gangs. A 20-point plan from Demo­crat­ic Sen. Robert Men­en­dez in­cludes boost­ing fund­ing to help Cent­ral Amer­ic­an na­tions im­prove their na­tion­al se­cur­ity, crack­ing down on smug­glers, and us­ing al­tern­at­ives to de­ten­tion to mon­it­or fam­il­ies await­ing ju­di­cial pro­ceed­ings. And a group of House Demo­crats has in­tro­duced a bill to provide more leg­al as­sist­ance to chil­dren in such pro­ceed­ings (they don’t have a cost es­tim­ate yet).

But such pro­pos­als and ac­tions by the ad­min­is­tra­tion still fall short for more hawk­ish law­makers who want stricter en­force­ment at the bor­der. House Speak­er John Boehner urged Obama to send the Na­tion­al Guard to the bor­der and speed up re­mov­al pro­ceed­ings, call­ing the surge in un­ac­com­pan­ied minors a “na­tion­al se­cur­ity and hu­man­it­ari­an crisis.”

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Henry Cuel­lar, who rep­res­ents a bor­der dis­trict in Texas, wants faster de­port­a­tion pro­ceed­ings, too. “It’s a step in the right dir­ec­tion,” he says of the latest plan from the White House. “The pres­id­ent, in my opin­ion, is play­ing catch-up on this when they knew about it…. This has been hap­pen­ing for years.”

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