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."