Both the White House and Republicans in Congress agree that the wave of child migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is a “humanitarian crisis” that needs urgent attention. The question is what to do about it.
On Tuesday, President Obama laid out his plan in a request to Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds. The extra spending, which is not covered in the budget, would be to speed up the process of deciding child cases, improve border security, better house and care for the children, and help their countries of origin repatriate them once they are deported.
But some key Republicans say President Obama is asking for money without a plan to address the root problem. A key sticking point is a 2008 child trafficking law that handles immigrants from Mexico and Canada far more quickly than from other countries. Critics of the law blame its procedures for minimizing the deportation of migrant children from the other countries and thereby encouraging even more to flood into the US.
The president last week announced in a letter to Congress that he would seek changes to this law – but on Tuesday, his plan did not include any such changes.
That’s a problem for a Republican such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate GOP leadership’s point person on the crisis. He accused the president of asking for a “blank check” while at the same time deciding to “peel off” revisiting the 2008 law. “He just decided not to do that because of the pushback that he got from some [in] his own political base,” Senator Cornyn told reporters Tuesday. Cornyn wants the 2008 law revisited as a reform to solve the child migrant problem, not just mitigate it.
But that rankles some Democrats, who see the law as a protection for these minors. “While I support the president asking for more money, I am deeply concerned that the legal rights of children fleeing violence that are part of our current law may get curtailed,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D) of Illinois said in a statement after Mr. Obama signaled his interest in changing the law last week.
The law, passed by both chambers under President George W. Bush, spells out how children crossing the border without parents should be treated. Border patrol agents are allowed to decide whether a minor can stay in the US when those children are from America’s immediate neighbors. The process goes quickly because those children can be handed over directly and safely to officials from their home countries. But those from farther away have to be flown back – and to a situation that is harder to read from a distance.
To account for that, the law requires that these children be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being apprehended, so that the agency can find them a safe place to stay and legal counsel to advise them on whether they qualify for asylum. Because of the backlog in immigration courts, they can wait a year or two for their case to be heard and many never show up. Absent deportations, people in Central America get a message that minors can stay in the US.
White House officials say they still intend to ask Congress to adjust the law so that children from “noncontiguous” countries are treated the same as those from “contiguous” countries. The administration just doesn’t want to seek that change now. In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, one White House official expressed confidence that it’s possible to still comply with the spirit of the law – protecting children – even if it’s changed.
But deciding children’s cases is complex, cautions Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies migration around the world.
“These children in a lot of cases have been through a lot of terrible things, and differentiating which rise to the level of asylum claims and trafficking claims are not always that easy,” he says. Sex trafficking cases, for instance, are cause for being allowed to stay, but so, too, can be cases in which a minor comes to the US for economic reasons but is abused along the way.
“The child needs to be able to talk freely about this, and in a lot of cases needs counseling,” he says.
Mr. Capps describes the president as between a rock and hard place on this issue, facing border enforcement pressure from Republicans and complaints from Democrats who are concerned about the welfare of the wave of minors – nearly 40,000 this year from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador compared with 4,000 in 2011.
“It’s really important to recognize that this is a mixed flow,” says Capps. “Some will have valid claims, many – probably the majority – will not. The key is making sure that process [of deciding] is done correctly.”