The number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has spiked 90 percent since last year. Republicans are responding to the humanitarian situation by making it the latest excuse to halt efforts on immigration reform. While some Republicans are lining their campaign wallets using the crisis, others are trying to blame the President Obama for not enforcing current immigration laws.
House Republicans will hold a House Judiciary Committee hearing next week titled, “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors” to drive home that point. In an op-ed published Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said that Obama’s “broader refusal to uphold our immigration laws [has] created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally.”
In early June, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also argued in a press release that the President was “personally responsible” for “incentivizing” unaccompanied children with the promise of “citizenship for anyone in the world who arrives illegally in the country by a certain age.” As a result, Sessions said, “President Obama is responsible for this calamity.”
Most children are fleeing extreme violence and a fear of individual safety in Mexico and Central America’s northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. And there has been an uptick of these child refugees since 2009, long before either the Senate comprehensive immigration bill or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (a presidential initiative which grants temporary legal presence to some undocumented immigrants) came into public existence.
After the Obama administration announced a cross-governmental agencies plan to deal with the situation, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) released a press release stating that the surge was “an administration-made crisis” due to Obama’s supposed lax border enforcement policies. Goodlatte said in early June, “Many of the Obama Administration’s policies… have led to a surge of minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Even House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) criticized the President’s “lax enforcement at Mexico’s borders,” in a strongly worded letter to Obama Friday, claiming Obama was giving a “free pass” to immigrants heading into the United States. He requested for the President to send the National Guard and asked the State Department to begin repatriation talks. But Boehner also insisted that, “once [unaccompanied children] reach U.S. soil, they will be able to stay here indefinitely.”
In fact, the current process of dealing with unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico was set by the Bush administration, according to Dara Lind at Vox. Under the law, the Border Patrol agency is required to take in these children, screen and vaccinate them, then turn them over to the Department of Health of Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR assigns children to shelters until the agency can identify sponsors and once children are placed with sponsors, their cases work their way through the immigration court. Earlier this month, Jonathan Ryan, an attorney with the immigration advocacy group RAICES, told ThinkProgress that the Bush administration “changed the treatment of how kids go through immigration court.” Ryan added that the law was a “recognition of the need to protect these kids and at the time, the need was the war that’s pushing kids out of Central America.”
These lawmakers may be drawing from a Border Patrol “survey” leaked to conservative media outlets and congressional members, which found that about 230 children and women from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador came to the United States for immigration reform. Yet the survey findings, which ThinkProgress also obtained, has massive gaps in its methodology and data results. The memo acknowledged that Border Patrol agents threw out any responses that did not fit with their “general consensus” for the main reasons to leave their countries. In many cases, children and women gave multiple reasons for entering the U.S., including an increase in gang-related violence in Central America. Other missing gaps include: Border Patrol agents are not trained to conduct surveys of people that they have just apprehended; the data set includes only answers given on one day, May 28th; and it’s unclear how many children were interviewed.
Other researchers have determined that immigration reform, or any U.S. legislation, is not behind the emigration. In a survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, only one out of 104 El Salvadoran children mentioned immigration reform as a primary motivator for leaving. Another survey by Elizabeth Kennedy, a doctoral candidate at San Diego State University found that “in only one of 400-plus interviews did a child migrant ask about the DREAM Act and immigration reform. …Fifteen had heard that the U.S. system treated children differently than adults and wanted to know how. In all 15 cases, the child had received a threat to join the gang or be killed, and some had then been beat or raped when they refused to join.”
After children are placed with the ORR, they are put into immigration proceedings as the White House and DHS Sec. Johnson have long emphasized. The New York Times reported that the Obama administration has been responding to the crisis by accelerating the immigration adjudication process and deporting children as quickly as possible. The New York Times also found that the DHS has “expand[ed] the use of monitoring devices, such as electronic ankle bracelets, to keep track of migrants after they are released.” Even Hillary Clinton recently said to CNN that the children “should be sent back” to their home countries. Clinton added, “Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. … We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws, or we’ll encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”
Although the data is not limited to only children, the Department of Justice found that only 18 percent of non-detained immigrants fail to appear for their removal hearings.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the White House announced steps “to improve enforcement and partnering with our Central American counterparts in three key areas: combating gang violence and strengthening citizen security, spurring economic development, and improving capacity to receive and reintegrate returned families and children.” It will also provide $9.6 million for Central American governments to help repatriated citizens, establish a $40-million U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program over 5 years to improve citizen security in Guatemala, launch a $25-million Crime and Violence Prevention USAID program in El Salvador, and provide $18.5 million to support community policing and law enforcement efforts in Honduras. The White House press release also stated that it will collaborate on “campaigns to help potential migrants understand the significant danger of relying on human smuggling networks and to reinforce that recently arriving children and individuals are not eligible for programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly called DACA, and earned citizenship provisions in comprehensive immigration reform currently under consideration in the Congress.”
Republicans has long justified inaction on immigration reform based on a revolving list of excuses, including citing the President ignoring the law in order to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, because HealthCare.gov was broken, that the Boston Marathon bomber was an immigrant, and Obama’s refusal to negotiate during the shutdown made it unrealistic to pass immigration reform.