An explainer on unaccompanied children crossing U.S. border

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 14, 2014 

— President Barack Obama is urging Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to help government agencies handle an influx of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The president’s proposal would speed up deportations of children, lift a current immigration law and add more resources to Border Patrol, which is practically out of space to accommodate the children. Here’s some background on the story:

Q: Why are unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally into the United States?

A: A collage of factors. Many of them come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Those countries are extremely poor and ridden with gang violence, bad schools, few quality jobs and, for women in poverty, the much higher prospect of rape. The children _ some younger than 10 _ make the treacherous journey to the United States through Mexico, often with child-smugglers, also known as coyotes.

The big holdup: U.S officials have made it abundantly clear _ at least in the United States _ that unaccompanied children have no path to American citizenship.

The child-smugglers are telling families the opposite, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Families pay the smugglers to escort their children from Central America through Mexico and into the United States. The “misinformation campaign,” as Johnson calls it, entices parents to send their children with the hope they’ll earn U.S. citizenship.

Many Republicans have accused Obama of helping to cause the surge with an immigration executive order. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order _ signed in 2012 _ grants some young immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally deferred deportations if they arrived before 2007. Republicans say the change gives a way for child smugglers to bend the truth. It’s unclear how much the smugglers use the order as a way to recruit families and children.

Q: When did the unaccompanied children start crossing the border in large numbers?

A: Over 26,000 such children crossed the border in fiscal year 2013, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Although the numbers of children have been increasing since 2011, the surge in crossings started this spring. This fiscal year _ which started last Oct. 1 _ 52,000 children had crossed the Southwest border through June 15. That’s a 99 percent increase over the entire previous fiscal year.

Q: What happens to the children once they cross the border?

A: Once CBP officials find the unaccompanied children, they’re put into temporary shelters. Some of these shelters are military bases, community centers and facilities operated by nonprofit organizations.

After 72 hours, the Health and Human Services Department takes custody of the children. Once they’re with HHS, the children are reunited with parents already living in the United States, put into foster care or placed into deportation proceedings.

Johnson hasn’t been clear about what happens when a parent who’s living illegally in the United States attempts to pick up his or her child. Johnson says HHS works in the “best interest” of the child, but he hasn’t specified whether that means the parent and child would be deported together.

With the president’s proposal to hasten deportation proceedings, foster care appears an unlikely option for most of these children.

Q: Which government agencies are dealing with the influx of unaccompanied children?

A: Customs and Border Protection oversees the patrol officials who maintain security along the nation’s Southwest border. CPB officials come in contact first with the unaccompanied children. The Health and Human Services Department takes custody of them after about three days. The Homeland Security Department is overseeing all the agencies that are working with the children and is also coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Q: Which country is most represented?

A: Honduras leads all countries, including Mexico. Over 15,000 Honduran children have crossed the U.S. border so far this fiscal year, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. That number has already more than doubled over the figure for all of fiscal 2013.

About 12,500 Guatemalan children have come to the United States this year, along with 12,000 Mexican kids and 11,500 from El Salvador.

Q: How is the United States trying to prevent more crossings of such children?

A: Vice President Joe Biden visited Guatemala earlier this month to urge Central American government officials to stem the surge. Biden also promised $255 million in aid to the three countries together to improve security and education and to prosecute crime. The Homeland Security Department launched an advertising campaign in print, radio and television in Central America to caution families not to send children. Obama said this week in Texas that such unaccompanied children would have no path to citizenship.

Q: Why can’t the United States just send the children back to their countries immediately?

A: President George W. Bush signed an immigration bill in 2008 that was intended to prevent child smuggling. It requires children who aren’t from Mexico to go through deportation proceedings. The unintended consequence of the law is the U.S. can’t simply send the children back to their countries. By law, they must go through lengthy formal deportation proceedings.

Mexican immigrants may be sent back immediately under U.S. law.

Obama’s proposal this week aims to lift the 2008 law to hasten deportations, among other goals.

Q: What are the politics of this problem?

A: Democrats are reluctant to support the president’s request to speed up deportations. The deportations _ at least politically _ appear to contradict the Democrats’ push for a large immigration-overhaul bill that passed in the Senate last year but fell flat in the House of Representatives. Many also don’t want to send children back to possibly dangerous situations.

Republicans lambaste Obama for what they describe as lax immigration policies. Although the president’s proposal would include money to boost border security _ which Republicans demand _ they don’t want to appear in agreement with him. Many Republicans say they want the National Guard to patrol the border. Obama isn’t considering the National Guard as an option right now.

The real solution to the surge in unaccompanied children, Obama says, is for Congress to pass an immigration overhaul bill to create new paths to citizenship. Republicans are reluctant to consider the bill before this year’s midterm elections.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the effect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order. It defers the deportations of young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally before 2007.

Email: pgillespie@mcclatchydc.com

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