CHN: Child Migrants Fleeing Central America Seek Safety in U.S.

Children, some as young as five years old, have been making the dangerous trip from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador by themselves or with the help of paid smugglers. They have crossed the border and have been apprehended or turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. Large numbers are fleeing violence in their native countries. Some are trying to escape poverty; some are seeking family members in the United States. Some 57,000 have entered this country so far this year, although the numbers coming in each week have started to decline. Republicans and Democrats alike have termed this a humanitarian crisis, and President Obama has sent Congress a supplemental spending request for $3.7 billion to cope with the emergency need to house and care for the children and some adults, to handle their requests for asylum, and to beef up border enforcement. While Senate appropriators are poised to release their spending proposal in response to the President’s request on Wednesday, July 23, the House is proceeding more slowly. Although Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress that funds will start to dry up in mid-August, largely partisan divisions are making it unlikely that emergency funding will be approved before Congress leaves for its August recess.
“We’re not giving the president a blank check,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday, July 9. That is not what the President asked for, in submitting an emergency request with about $1.5 billion for enforcement functions performed by the Department of Homeland Security, $1.8 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to care for the children, $64 million to the Department of Justice to hire more immigration judge teams and provide some children with legal representation services, and $300 million to work with Central American countries to repatriate the children and/or ameliorate conditions that have led to their flight. But disagreements have emerged over the size and timing of the funding package, whether it should be paid for by deeper cuts in other areas, and whether policy changes should accompany increased funding.

While it is expected that Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will release a funding proposal more or less similar to the President’s request, without recommending changes in law to speed deportations, the House is far more likely to tie new funding to changes in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the bipartisan 2008 law that provides better protections for child migrants coming from countries not bordering the U.S. than are available for Mexican or Canadian children. That law, created to respond to trafficking of minors, requires that children apprehended by border authorities must be transferred to the care of HHS within 72 hours, with judicial proceedings initiated to evaluate claims that the children are escaping from violence. Children are housed temporarily in a group location, and then transferred as soon as possible to stay with families (either their own relatives or others) until their request to stay in the U.S. is heard. “To the greatest extent practicable,” the law requires that unaccompanied children have counsel, both to represent them in legal proceedings but also to protect them in cases of mistreatment or exploitation (however, the law does not require the federal government to pay for counsel, and many children have been showing up before immigration judges without any legal help). In contrast, U.S. border agents can turn back Mexican children immediately if they do not judge them to have legitimate claims for asylum. Both the Obama Administration and some in Congress have sought some changes in the 2008 law so that border agents can treat children coming from non-contiguous countries the same as those coming from Mexico or Canada. But Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) and many other Senate and House Democrats have rejected tying the emergency funding to such changes in law.

Child advocates have opposed reducing the protections now afforded to the children entering from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The organization First Focus has explicitly called for broadening the protections for children from Mexico, rather than speeding the deportation of this new influx of children. Advocates point to findings by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that nearly half of 404 children interviewed by them described being personally affected by gang and drug cartel violence. Such high numbers suggest strongly that many of the children seeking asylum here have good claims. If border officers can send them back to their country of origin without access to counsel or adequate investigation, children whose lives would be threatened if they return will be placed at high risk.

Once Chairwoman Mikulski shares her funding proposal, there will be calls to insert policy changes from both sides of the aisle, with the timetable for Senate floor action unclear. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) appointed Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) to head a border crisis working group to make recommendations, which are somewhat delayed in coming. Rep. Granger describes the border situation as “an urgent crisis that must be dealt with immediately,” but her press statement describing the working group makes it clear that their goal is to prevent as many children from entering the U.S. as possible, and to return most of those who have already arrived. Speaker Boehner recently voiced doubts that Congress would be able to deal with the funding request before Congress recesses for all of August. A recent Congressional Budget Office preliminary assessment of the President’s supplementary funding request estimated that only $25 million of the $3.7 billion would be needed in the weeks remaining in the current fiscal year. That will tempt Congress to delay approval of the emergency funding until it passes a temporary spending measure to keep all appropriations going after October 1. That could make it less likely Congress will take up proposals to weaken protections in the 2008 law when it adds funding to cope with the child migrants. It may also make it harder for advocates to fight for inclusion of funding so that children do not languish in holding facilities without legal proceedings or transitions to an appropriate family setting.

Some in Congress are intent on spending more on border enforcement, even though most of these children have been apprehended. Some immigration reform opponents blame the Administration for sending the wrong message by allowing some young people who entered this country illegally as children to remain in the U.S. legally. However, to be eligible for this, young people have to have been in the country continuously since June 2007. Other reform opponents and right wing members seeking to reduce spending generally are looking to offset the costs of assisting the children with other cuts, although House Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) has stated that no decisions about seeking offsets have been made. With FY 2015 funding set very low already, advocates, the Administration, and many in Congress strongly oppose paying for these emergency services with deeper cuts. Chairwoman Mikulski has said that her proposal will not seek offsetting cuts, since she agrees with President Obama that the surge in child migrants is an emergency underthe definition of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Without more funds, thousands of children are likely to remain in holding facilities not intended to house them for any length of time, without needed services, and without enough judges to determine the merits of their claims for asylum. Congressional inaction, while the norm in this election year, threatens to harm thousands of children already in desperate circumstances.