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Border securityEfforts to discourage unaccompanied minors from entering U.S. have so far failed

Published 7 July 2014

The administration’s efforts to discourage children from Central America and Mexico from illegally entering the United States continue to gain little traction, and the number of migrants under eighteen years old illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border continues to increase. Officials blame the surge in young migrants on the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 law which made it difficult to repatriate unaccompanied minors without letting then appear before an immigration judge. The administration has asked Congress to change the 2008 law to give DHS greater discretion in repatriating Central American children more quickly, but some Senate Democrats have vowed to block narrow changes to immigration laws.

Last week in an address in the Rose Garden, President Barack Obama, referring to the influx of under-aged children crossing the border illegally into the United States, said: “The journey is unbelievably dangerous for these kids. The children who are fortunate enough to survive it will be taken care of while they go through the legal process, but in most cases that process will lead to them being sent back home.”

The administration’s efforts to discourage children from Central America and Mexico from illegally entering the United States, however, continue to gain little traction, and the number of migrants under eighteen years old illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border continues to increase. The influx of migrant children from Central America is led by the need to escape violence and abuse from gangs, but instead of escaping to Mexico, many young migrants are aware that once they enter the United States, they are likely to be housed and given an immigration hearing before being repatriated.

The Los Angeles Times reports that since October 2013, 52,000 children and teens have been caught by Border Patrol agents. Eleven thousands of those children were bused back to Mexico, but nearly 35,000 were from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and most of them are being held in Border Patrol stations in Texas and Arizona, and in emergency facilities under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services on military bases and other sites.

Obama administration officials blame the surge in young migrants on the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 Bush administration law which made it difficult to repatriate unaccompanied minors without letting then appear before an immigration judge. Now a backlog in immigration courts has allowed Central American minors to remain in the United States for years while their cases remain pending. Obama has asked Congress to change the 2008 law to give DHS chief Jeh Johnson, greater discretion to repatriate Central American children more quickly, but some Senate Democrats have vowed to block narrow changes to immigration laws. This week, Obama will ask lawmakers to appropriate more than $2 billion to cover the cost of maintaining accommodations for young migrants.

The 2008 law was intended to prevent young migrants from being returned to human traffickers in their country. The law allowed children who were abused or abandoned to be granted “special immigrant juvenile status” to remain in the United States and ultimately to apply for permanent residency, but few members of Congress anticipated that the law would encourage young children to cross the U.S. border in such large numbers.

Former U.S. Representative Howard L. Berman (D-California), a sponsor of the 2008 law, defended it last week as necessary to protect children from violence. “What do you do with the ones that come from Central America? Do you load them all on a plane and see who comes and meets them at the airport?” Berman asked. Referring to overwhelmed emergency shelters and immigration courts due to the influx of children encouraged to enter the United States illegally, Berman said, “obviously this particular result was not anticipated.”