Each day, waves of children ranging from toddlers to teenagers flee terrible violence and economic desperation in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and arrive in this country in search of safe haven. They are being sent alone, unaccompanied by their families. This fiscal year alone, Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 50,000 unaccompanied children at our Southwest border, a sharp increase over previous fiscal years. The surge of unaccompanied minors is an acute humanitarian crisis.
Instead of strategizing to develop actionable policy solutions, many elected officials continue to make unsubstantiated claims and suggest ideas that would do little or nothing to address the current situation. For instance, many incorrectly label the situation a border security problem. In reality, these children do not attempt to evade the Border Patrol and in most cases, they are apprehended quickly and without incident. Some purposefully conflate the issue of unaccompanied children with border crime and even terrorist organizations to evoke fear. They falsely paint the Southwest border as a type of battleground that can only be stabilized by the National Guard, when in reality the Border Patrol’s effectiveness rate in the area has improved.
Some also play the blame game, faulting President Barack Obama and his immigration policies for this crisis. However, those playing this blame game know it is clear that those policies would not affect the root of this humanitarian crisis; Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or the comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate, do not apply to these children. Furthermore, the law that sets forth the process for dealing with unaccompanied children was not only signed into law by President George W. Bush, but also voted upon favorably by its new critics.
Fear mongering and blaming will not bring about a solution. These measures can be achieved without undermining important protections provided to this vulnerable population of children under existing law.
First, we must ensure immediate federal resource needs are met. The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services will run out of money in the coming weeks without additional funding. Congress has an obligation to provide the necessary resources. However, Congress should not use the children as pawns to attach unnecessary stipulations to the funding.
Second, we need a sensible approach that includes measures to bolster our nation’s ability to provide timely and enhanced processing of unaccompanied children consistent with current law. To do this, we support plans for the attorney general to appoint additional immigration judges to provide additional capacity to an immigration court system that has been underfunded for decades. We also support increased funding for legal counsel for unaccompanied children. Access to counsel is essential to ensuring kids get due process and to making sure their cases move forward as quickly as possible.
Third, we must discourage unaccompanied children, their families and smugglers from pursuing this dangerous journey. To do so, we support public information campaigns that emphasize the dangers of the trip to the U.S. and promoting efforts to go after smuggling organizations, including increased penalties for those who profit from smuggling children.
This is a complex issue that cannot be solved by playing politics. Instead, Congress has a responsibility to find sensible solutions that provide federal agencies the resources they need to carry out the law, protect due process rights for vulnerable children, and honor our values as Americans. We stand ready to do work with any of our colleagues who believe the same.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y.; Cedric L. Richmond, D-La.; and Filemon Vela, D-Texas, are members of the committee.