Jessy Gill, Policy Specialist
The opportunity for comprehensive Immigration Reform in the 113th Congress, something that after decades finally appeared feasible, is dead—due in large part to Republicans holding up the process in the House. Immigration reform experts say we should not expect another opportunity until after President Obama leaves office; and even then, immigration will likely not be addressed legislatively until another President takes the issue on in their second term. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) cites a lack of appetite for immigration reform at this time as the reason for the hold-up; and yet failures in the immigration system are the first thing Congress points to as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children approach the US-Mexico border in search of asylum.
The number of minors crossing the US-Mexico border has skyrocketed over the last year, with conservative estimates at more than 40,000 already in 2014, and expectations of at least 90,000 before the year is out. The children surrendering themselves at our border are largely coming from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; fleeing political instability, corruption, gang recruitment, violence, and sexual abuse.
Many Republicans are using this surge in children at the border as yet another opportunity to blame President Obama and particularly his policies supporting child immigrants (i.e. DACA). GOP members and some Democrats in the House are looking into altering provisions in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008. These provisions currently exempt all unaccompanied child migrants from “noncontiguous” countries (any country that is not Canada or Mexico) from being immediately sent back, and instead funnel them to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Once transferred to DHSS, the child is allowed time to await a hearing by an immigration judge to determine whether the child qualifies for asylum (see Figure below). House members are in discussions to remove this exemption for other neighboring countries south of the border in an “alternative border security bill,” which would in essence, ignore the crisis at hand and provide legal means to immediately send the children back into known violence.
Congressional leadership is addressing the issue as one tied to immigration reform when in fact what we are seeing is a humanitarian crisis. President Obama’s recent letter to Congress identifies activity at the border as “an urgent humanitarian situation,” and yet it seems the President is in agreement with Republicans’ call for fast tracking deportation proceedings. Kevin Appleby of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is reported saying “what the administration is proposing is that the process for adjudicating those claims be shortened, without the benefit of an immigration judge or legal representation… it is akin to sending a child back into a burning building and locking the door.” Even as President Obama attempts to cater to both sides of the discussion, House Republicans have made it clear that President Obama’s current $3.7 billion spending request will not pass without stricter ties to immigration laws.
National and international human rights advocates have started to weigh in and bring attention to the issue. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees recently surveyed 404 unaccompanied children at the border from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—and of those, 58%“were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” With these findings we see that nearly 60% of children interviewed had viable claims that merited US protections. Under these circumstances, it is important that those with legislative power recognize the distinction between immigrants and refugees; as the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Brané says, “it’s not an immigration issue, it’s a refugee issue.”
To turn these children away at the border is to ignore the United States’ protection obligations, bound by law and international treaty. The Obama Administration needs to ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services protects these minors, and give them the right to apply for asylum.
For a more in-depth look at the crisis at the border, look over the American Immigration Council’s guide “Children in Danger: A Guide to the Humanitarian Challenge at the Border” found on their website.
Figure above published by US Department of Homeland Security
Featured image photo credit to NYTimes