Children Immigrants and the United States

July 17, 2014

What do you do when an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied immigrant children cross the US southern border in search of a new home? By September 30, that’s the number of children expected to enter the US from Central America in this wave of immigration.

With unsubstantiated reports circulating on major news networks that some of the children are ill, politicians in states as far away as Massachusetts are trying to figure out how much they want to be part of the federal governments response.

President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 in emergency funding to address the surge in unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, crossing the U.S. Mexico border.

A huge spike in unaccompanied children attempting to cross the southern border into the United States has prompted the Obama administration to declare “an urgent humanitarian situation” that requires a coordinated federal response. Craig Fugate, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will quarterback the administration’s unified response to care for the 60,0000 unaccompanied minors that are expected to cross the border this year, including housing, care, medical treatment and transportation. He will coordinate with the several agencies that play a role in apprehending and caring for the children, including the departments of Health and Human Services, State, Defense, and the General Services Administration. (CBS News July 8, 2014)

Republicans have been quick to blame the president for the crisis challenging the president’s characterization of the surge as an unforeseen crisis, accusing his administration of contributing to the influx and demanding that he deploy National Guard troops and other resources to secure the border.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday called the flood of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border a “failure of diplomacy.”

“I’ve known about this for two years. The president has known about this,” Perry said during a briefing in Washington. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times June 19, 2014.)

Amid sharply divided opinions as to the causes of the crisis, proposed solutions range increasing efforts to insure the welfare of the children to calling out the National Guard.

One thing remains certain for the time being. Current Federal law, enacted in 2008, diverts undocumented immigrant children out of the Homeland Security/Border Protection bureaucracy into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being apprehended. The Customs and Border Protection office transfers them to secure facilities around the country. The children do not have permission to remain in the U.S. They are required to appear in immigration court and demonstrate eligibility to remain in the U.S. The U.S. and Mexico have an agreement that allows the U.S. to return Mexican children back across the border without taking them into custody, if Customs and Border Protection officers determine that they have not been trafficked and do not fear being persecuted if sent home. With the influx of unaccompanied children in recent months, the shelters for unaccompanied children have now been filled to capacity. The government has begun to use military bases as emergency shelters. The children will temporarily stay in the shelters while waiting to be reunified with family in the U.S., placed in long-term foster care or sent back to their home country. (Q&A with Maria Woltjen, University of Chicago Law School, UchicagoNews July 14, 2014.)

A bipartisan bill just introduced in Congress by Senator John Cronyn (R-Texas) and Representative Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) would remove most of the current protections afforded to the children crossing the border.

Illegal child migrants from Central America would have seven days to request asylum once they are screened by the federal health and human services workers, under a bill expected to be filed Tuesday to stem the flood of unaccompanied children on the Texas border.

Immigration judges would have 72 hours to decide if the children are eligible for relief. Those who aren’t would be returned immediately to their families in their home countries.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is the first salvo in the congressional effort to revamp a 2008 human trafficking law that gives special protections to child immigrants from countries that do not border the United States. (Kevin Diaz, Houston Chronicle , July 14, 2014)

The bill faces fierce opposition from Congessional Democrats, but the White House appears to be open to the plan.

The White House gave a cautious welcome to the plan put forth by Cornyn and Cuellar. Spokesman Josh Earnest said he would not comment directly on specific proposals, but praised Cornyn for taking action on the crisis.

“We will wait until it is introduced and then we will review the draft. Our views on this are pretty well known.” Earnest told reporters. “We certainly welcome constructive engagement from Republicans; after all, we have seen a lot of talk about how urgent and pressing the situation is, but not a lot of action.”

But critics in Congress told the Guardian they remain deeply concerned at the idea of rolling back anti-trafficking legislation.

“Let me make it absolutely clear I am not voting for a supplemental [funding] bill that includes changes and abrogates the rights of children as established in 2002, 2007 and 2008,” said Representative Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat, on Friday. (Dan Roberts, The Guardian, July 14, 2014)

Meanwhile, as the partisan brawl rages on, a genuine humanitarian crisis is growing along the border as children continue to pour into overcrowded shelters.