In recent weeks, a largely futile rhetorical debate has broken out over what’s happening at the southern border. Conservatives have sounded the alarm bells, consistently referring to the situation as an all-out crisis. Meanwhile, the Biden administration prefers to speak of the border situation as a “challenge,” which it is more than capable of addressing.
Regardless of the terminology, there is something we should all agree on: Thousands of children trapped for days or weeks in jail-like Customs and Border Protection holding cells is a problem. Republicans are not wrong to draw attention to it. Nor are they wrong to suggest it has something to do with Joe Biden’s immigration policies. They have just gotten their diagnosis of what’s bad about these policies backwards.
Namely, while Republicans blame Biden’s (very limited) pro-asylum policies for acting as a “magnet,” it is actually his anti-asylum ones that are causing a backlog of unaccompanied kids in the system. Here’s how.
Since taking office, Biden has left in place a Trump-era order, known as Title 42, suspending access to asylum at the U.S. border for families traveling together and solo adults. Under the policy, people who arrive at the border can get expelled immediately, with virtually no chance to seek protection.
There is an exception, however, for children who are not with an adult. These unaccompanied minors are still being processed for asylum, due to a court order that went into effect during the Trump presidency and the Biden team’s later decision to continue with the same policy.
Since this exception was created, the number of unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody has shot up — a trend that began under Donald Trump that has continued. Right-wingers say this is evidence Biden is being too “soft” and even too humane on immigration, signaling to people outside of our borders that it is time to come. In response, Democrats and administration officials often repeat that expelling unaccompanied minors would be wrong.
These officials are right to say that a return to Trump-era child expulsions is morally repugnant. But the reality is, expelling families is actually causing more children to travel unaccompanied in the first place.
For one, by turning away many families without allowing them access to an asylum screening, the administration forces many children to try their luck alone. Recent reporting from the border features desperate families openly discussing the possibility of sending their children solo. This is a traumatic choice that no parent would make willingly; but when their kids’ lives are in danger in Mexico or their home countries, there is no alternative.
Additionally, many children who are labeled as “unaccompanied” in the system actually arrived at the border with an adult relative. If the relative cannot establish legal guardianship, however, they are often separated from the child. This cruel practice dates back through multiple administrations, and when it is coupled with Title 42, the results are especially horrific. The adult relative may then be expelled from the country, while the child is left alone in an unfamiliar setting.
Moreover, these separations of extended family members make it harder for children to get released with sponsors — people who can care for the children in the United States. Under previous policies, when adult relatives were also allowed to seek asylum, they could eventually be released and could then act as sponsors for the children who were still in government custody. Under Title 42, however, if these relatives are expelled, they will no longer be able to volunteer for this role. As a result, even more children are left unaccompanied in the system, and the pool of potential sponsors is diminished.
The government is supposed to transfer children to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of being intercepted at the border, so that they can be placed quickly with sponsors. With so many solo kids now in U.S. custody, however, the government is failing to keep pace. As a result, children are stranded in border patrol cells far longer than the three-day maximum, often in miserable conditions.
Vice President Kamala Harris was tapped last week to lead our immigration response, and there’s a straightforward way for her to reduce the number of unaccompanied kids in U.S. custody: Allow families to seek asylum together. This does not need to be a crisis, nor should it lead to detention. Thousands of people of faith are ready and waiting to welcome asylum-seekers, volunteer to provide housing in the community and accompany them in their legal process.
Let’s be clear: Migration itself is not a problem. Neither is seeking asylum. The difficulty is that so many of the asylum-seekers this time around are unaccompanied minors. Unlike families or single adults who seek protection, the U.S. government can’t just release children alone with a future court date. They have special obligations to kids under U.S. law.
The path forward is simple: If the Biden-Harris administration truly wants to ease the bottleneck of kids trapped in CBP custody, it should stop expelling those children’s families.
Joshua Leach is a public policy and communications strategist at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a nonprofit advancing human rights with an international community of grassroots partners and advocates.