Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Wants the Border Law Changed

At a Senate hearing, the Homeland Security secretary said he’d like the ability to send Central American children back from the border faster.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (C) prepares to testifiy before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
July 10, 2014, 12:32 p.m.

In 2008, both cham­bers of Con­gress un­an­im­ously ap­proved a law that in­ten­tion­ally slowed down the re­mov­al pro­cess for un­ac­com­pan­ied child mi­grants. But it was writ­ten with 5,000 chil­dren a year in mind. This year, it’s pos­sible that 90,000 kids will ar­rive at the bor­der, and the sys­tem is ab­so­lutely crushed.

At a Sen­ate hear­ing today, Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son said that at cur­rent fund­ing, Im­mig­ra­tion could run out of money to deal with the crisis next month. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has asked Con­gress for nearly $4 bil­lion in ad­di­tion­al re­sources to com­bat the crisis.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, John­son said that the 2008 law should be amended.

“In terms of chan­ging the law,” he said, “we’re ask­ing for the abil­ity to treat un­ac­com­pan­ied kids from a Cent­ral Amer­ic­an coun­try in the same way as from a con­tigu­ous coun­try.”

Cur­rently, chil­dren from non­con­tigu­ous coun­tries are treated with ex­tra pre­cau­tion com­pared with chil­dren from Mex­ico. With un­ac­com­pan­ied Mex­ic­an minors, DHS is not re­quired to hand them over to the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment with­in 72 hours. In­stead, after an in­ter­view, bor­der con­trol agents can make de­term­in­a­tions on the spot if a child flags con­cerns for fear of per­se­cu­tion or fear of re­turn. If no con­cerns are raised, they can turn the child around right away, rather then have the young­ster travel through the long and com­plic­ated U.S. im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem and through HHS fa­cil­it­ies and care. Chil­dren who go through HHS, could stay in the coun­try for months, or even years, if the back­log is long enough.

“People in Cent­ral Amer­ica need to see il­leg­al mi­grants com­ing back,” John­son said. “The chil­dren ac­com­pan­ied by their par­ents, and the un­ac­com­pan­ied adults. We’re do­ing it, and lessen­ing the time it takes to hap­pen. So, we’re ask­ing for ad­di­tion­al re­sources to turn those people around quick­er.”

But, at the same time, chan­ging the law means go­ing back to a sys­tem that Con­gress felt com­pelled enough to change. One of the drafters of the law said the pro­vi­sion was in­cluded be­cause there was a feel­ing that these chil­dren were be­ing dealt with in too sum­mary a fash­ion. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, more than half of these chil­dren flag in­ter­na­tion­al-pro­tec­tion con­cerns. Chan­ging the law won’t change their risk of re­turn.

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