On America’s southern border, officials have watched for the past few years as a trickle of children crossing the Rio Grande illegally without their parents has turned into a veritable flood. So many kids, in fact, that the issue has triggered a crisis, as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson had to issue an emergency alert this month establishing a shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to house the thousands of youths entering each week.
The news reverberated on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are suddenly grappling with the unprecedented surge of children making the more than 1,000-mile journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border to escape intensifying violence in their home countries. Members from border districts relayed stories about kids as young as toddlers and as old as teens being raped and murdered on the treacherous trek north through Mexico.
The phenomenon has completely overwhelmed federal resources in a matter of weeks, turning Border Patrol offices into day cares and military barracks into youth dormitories. The Health and Human Services Department struggles to keep up with the demands for its foster care, often leaving the kids stuck in detention facilities designed for adults.
With federal agencies facing sudden budget crunches — and the Obama administration yet to make specific requests for emergency funds — it will likely be up to appropriators in Congress to take the lead in the short term. Senate appropriators have said there is an obvious need for more money to help DHS intercept and humanely detain the unaccompanied minors, to aid HHS in housing and caring for the children and to facilitate trials to determine whether the children will be deported. But Washington has barely begun to grapple with a longer-term approach to deal with this flood of children, even in absence of a more comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.
Already, the problem is growing faster than responders can handle. In fiscal 2011, HHS estimated that some 6,500 unaccompanied minors entered the United States. By fiscal 2014, that estimate has jumped ninefold, to roughly 60,000. And outside experts project the number could surge to 130,000 over the coming fiscal year.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski says an initial cash infusion could buy Congress time to figure out why the number of unaccompanied minors has spiked suddenly, and what to do about the issue lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling a humanitarian crisis.
“We have to look out for these children while we work on root cause,” the Maryland Democrat told HHS officials during a hearing this month, later adding, “The Department of Homeland Security could end up holding these children in cells intended for adults unless we come to grips with what are we going to do and how we’re going to bridge this while we’re looking at the root cause.”
The root causes, however, are not all that well-understood or agreed upon, and the issue has become entangled with the nation’s emotional debate over immigration.
Texas Republican John Carter, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, is convinced that the Obama administration’s immigration policies are enticing unaccompanied minors to enter the country illegally.
“We created this policy, and we’ve got this draw,” Carter says. “And it’s criminal that there are little children that are walking out in the desert because of policies we created during this administration.”
Through DHS, foreign kids who have been abused, abandoned or neglected are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status and can get a green card to live and work in the United States permanently if they are unable to be reunited with a parent. And the chairman points specifically to the administration’s deferred-action policy of holding off on deporting children who entered before June 15, 2012, and then issuing them employment authorization for two years, as well as the practice of reuniting unaccompanied kids with relatives in the United States who are often illegally residing in the country themselves. The reunification policy creates a double standard in enforcement of child welfare laws, fueled by the government’s interest in saving money, Carter says.
“If an American citizen took their kids and dumped them out in the Sonoran Desert and told them to walk across the Rio Grande and catch the Border Patrol on the other side, and the parents funded that, we’d terminate their parental rights,” says Carter, a former district court judge. “And the truth is the states could do just that and put them in foster homes, but it would cost a ton of money.”
At a hearing last month, he asked newly seated Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske whether the immigration policy changes had caused the spike. Although recent entrants are not eligible for deferred action, Kerlikowske conceded that “deferred action, the family reunification is an issue,” adding later, “I certainly understand this issue of family reunification as being part of what really is a complex problem.”
But the commissioner said intensifying violence and criminal activity in Central America are the chief drivers of the mass migration.
HHS has also reported that, although the “reasons for this increase are complex,” rising violence in Central America is a major motivating factor. According to the department, 37 percent of all unaccompanied minors who entered the country in fiscal 2013 were from Guatemala, 30 percent were from Honduras and 26 percent came from El Salvador.
Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, says increasing violence in Central America has made life so dire that many children are willing to set out on the monthslong journey to the United States, clinging to the tops and sides of railcars in the notoriously dangerous Mexican freight train network referred to as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.”
“What you see is a lot of gang predators preying on them, traffickers preying on them, people who will rob them along the way, beat them along the way, and a high degree of sexual violence,” says Young, whose organization helps find legal representation for immigrant children. “The whole trip is just very, very dangerous. And you also see that kids may not make it, so they’ll get turned away at the border. But instead of going back to the home country, they’ll try again.”
DHS officials say the department is expanding foreign awareness campaigns aimed at dissuading kids from trying to illegally enter the United States by warning of the dangers and underscoring U.S. immigration laws.
In the meantime, before appropriators decide how much money to chip in for immediate response needs in fiscal 2015 — and for which accounts — they say they need more data from the Obama administration, which did not ask for additional fiscal 2015 funding to cope with the emergency.
“This is a humanitarian crisis, and we have to go to the edge of our chairs to at least get the estimate for fiscal ’15,” Mikulski told her panel, adding that “our failure to appropriate could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.”
The administration’s fiscal 2015 budget request calls for $868 million — flat funding on par with fiscal 2014 levels — for the HHS unaccompanied minors program. The department places immigrant kids in temporary housing such as foster homes, gives indirect financial support for expenses such as health care and legal services, and seeks permanent homes for them.
Jerry Moran of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS, says the budget request leaves “a major hole” for funding the program. “I assume their assumption is Congress has got to fill in the gap, but they didn’t provide us any tools to do that,” he adds.
In its budget request, the administration stated, “Due to the volatile nature of this program and the ongoing discussions of a long term policy solution, the Administration is not able to reliably predict the number of UAC (unaccompanied alien children) who will arrive in FY 2015 at this time.”
Making assumptions for fiscal 2015 is particularly challenging, the proposal states, because of the significant increase in the number of unaccompanied minors since fiscal 2012. The most accurate forecast for arrivals in fiscal 2015 would be made in fall of this year, the administration said.
“We will continue to closely monitor UAC arrivals and all potential program impacts and keep Congress apprised of changes in caseload projections and potential changes in the UAC population that may alter current budgetary estimates,” the document says.
Mikulski has warned administration officials, though, that she does not want to see a repeat of last year, when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called her to request more money for the program in the fiscal 2014 omnibus. In that legislation, the chairwoman and other appropriations leaders ended up increasing funding for the program by $492 million above fiscal 2013 levels.
“I’ve been saying to the administration: Tell me what you need, and don’t stick us with the bill at the end,” Mikulski told HHS officials. “And I feel that you’re not telling me what you need.”
Mikulski has been discussing the issue with Sebelius and Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Sebelius at HHS. And Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says several senators brought the issue up during a dinner with Kerry this month.
“Rather than worrying about the silos of where the money comes from, we need to think about what we can do that’s right for the kids,” says Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who sits on the spending subcommittee that appropriates funding for HHS.
For the Department of Homeland Security, the administration made no acknowledgement of the spike in unaccompanied minors in its most recent budget request, but it called for $187 million more than enacted in fiscal 2014 for Customs and Border Protection, which apprehends, interviews and temporarily detains unaccompanied children caught crossing the border.
Obama also requested $19 million more for Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles applications for immigration benefits such as green cards and asylum. But the fiscal 2015 budget proposal calls for $255 million less for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which helps with immigration court proceedings and transportation for the children who cross without guardians.
Carter says his Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee may have to shift funding in its fiscal 2015 spending bill to ensure that DHS agencies have the resources needed to deal with the increased flow of unaccompanied minors — an issue, he adds, that makes his constituents “absolutely furious.”
“This has cropped up recently,” Carter says. “I thought we had the appropriations numbers right where we wanted them, but now we will be discussing this because it’s becoming a high-priority situation.”
His panel will release the text of its draft fiscal 2015 spending bill this week, ahead of a scheduled markup.
To effectively stem this crisis in the long run, Young says, the U.S. government must call on the cooperation of many federal agencies, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“It’s a very complicated situation that there’s not going to be any one single answer to. It’s going to require a lot of coordination,” she says. “It’s not just a migration issue, it’s not just a refugee issue, it’s a children’s issue. And that triggers all sorts of extra concerns.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require DHS to ensure that social workers trained to handle children are available at border stations to screen and care for unaccompanied minors crossing the border. The congresswoman has also crafted a bill that would bar federal agencies from disqualifying relatives from taking custody of unaccompanied children solely because of the relative’s immigration status.
Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul has suggested also getting the Justice Department involved. McCaul, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, has been working with the department, as well as DHS officials including Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to craft a bill that would heighten penalties for human smuggling.
Those who smuggle immigrants through McCaul’s home state often exploit children, sell them into sex slavery or take the kids on such perilous journeys that they die before ever making it across the border, the congressman says.
It is in Texas’ Rio Grande corridor, where the state dips farthest down to touch the Mexican cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, that most of the unaccompanied kids have been spilling over the border. And it was there, in the U.S. border town of McAllen that the Homeland Security secretary witnessed a Border Patrol station so packed with kids this month that he declared a “level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley the next day.
That was the official admission that federal resources had been overwhelmed by the influx of unaccompanied children.
As Kerlikowske told lawmakers last month, his agency has simply been trying to “keep our heads above water” and “to get the Border Patrol agents back doing their work on the border and not essentially baby-sitting a lot of children that they really don’t have either the facilities or oftentimes the support that they need to do this.”
On the ground in Texas, it seems like the flow of unaccompanied minors is bound to increase only further, says Daniel Tirado, a public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector. “Obviously the word is getting back to their country that they’re being released,” Tirado says. “Because of that, I’m pretty sure that once they get that word, more are going to come.”
While the United States has agreements with Mexico and Canada to return illegal immigrants from those countries to their governments within 24 hours, there is no such understanding with Central American nations. So the droves of children crossing the border from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are released to family in the United States or kept in foster or group homes.
Zack Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, says the flow of unaccompanied minors won’t wane until the United States stops letting the kids stick around.
“They need to put them on a C-130 and take them back to their country. They need to demonstrate that they’re going to enforce the law. Until they do that, they’re going to keep coming. It’s that simple,” says Taylor, who worked for Border Patrol for 26 years in the Rio Grande Valley and Nogales, Ariz. “Because those people that have come here and successfully circumvented our laws by the application of policy, they call back to the home country and say, ‘Hey, this is how we got here. This is what we did.’ ”
Carl Meacham, who for more than a decade served as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide for former Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, says the rush of children trying to enter the United States should not be blamed only on deportation policies or even on trouble in Central America, but on the confluence of those factors, coupled with ambiguity in federal immigration laws.
“I think it’s a combination of this lax enforcement and the economic benefits of coming to the U.S.,” says Meacham, who now directs the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It highlights that there is a need for us to deal with this and to have an immigration reform built out by Congress.”
Lawmakers in both chambers and in both parties have said enactment of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws would help control the influx of unaccompanied minors.
“I think that’s why we have to have laws in place, we need to enforce the laws, and we now have another argument for why we need to solve this problem,” says South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. “We have all these sort of discrete issues that come up.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain says federal officials are exploiting humanitarian loopholes in immigration policy and asylum laws to allow Central American children to enter and remain in the United States.
“If we had immigration reform,” McCain says, “we would secure our border, and we would be able to judge these people when they come across or when they seek to come across, rather than just have them come across and there they are.”
Pia Orrenius, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, notes that immigration laws for asylum and green cards are more favorable to Central Americans than to Mexicans, and that the number of Mexicans trying to cross the border has been falling while the number of Central Americans rises. Because of those factors and the U.S. government’s policies on detaining citizens of non-neighboring countries, she says, the influx of Central American children is drastically affecting U.S. resources.
“All the institutional bias is against Mexicans and really in favor of Central Americans, so now you’re seeing this whole thing play out,” Orrenius says. “Where before we had all this economic immigration from Mexico that had a lot of economic benefits for the country as a whole ... now we’re transitioning into some kind of new status quo on the border where it’s more and more asylum seekers, more women and children, unaccompanied minors. And it’s really a bigger burden than we’ve ever had before.”
Christopher Wilson, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, does research on the U.S.-Mexico border several times a year and says he is now hearing more often about children showing up at the border making claims for asylum.
“There’s definitely an uptick in people claiming credible fear, both from Mexico and Central America,” Wilson says. And there seems to be truth, he adds, in claims that violence is pushing kids north from Central America.
But the flood of unaccompanied minors has reached crisis levels so quickly that the academic community has not yet been able to pinpoint all the factors that are driving the mass migration, Wilson says.
“So the situation has gone from concerning and very important to dire, extremely quickly,” he says. “All of us are struggling to keep up with the facts on the ground in terms of best solutions. Whenever you have a situation like this where it’s one: a human crisis, and two: sheds a light on a systemic crisis, you need to work on two tracks.
“You need to work on one track to take care of the kids who continue to cross the border every day and on the other side you need to look at what flaws this is exposing in the overall architecture of how we deal with immigration.”