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.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.