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Why The Trip from Central America is Worth the Risk

20,805 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were caught entering the United States illegally in 2013.  1,169 were repatriated.

57,000 unaccompanied children from those same 3 countries have been caught coming across the border so far this year.  1500, at most, have been deported.  Given those odds, it might be worth the trip.

President Obama’s public message that kids won’t be allowed to stay in the U.S. has to this point fallen on deaf Central American ears, and the kids keep arriving daily.  He’s now asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border.  But only a tiny fraction of that money would go where it’s desperately needed, the place with the best chance of ending the crisis:  immigration courts.

Most of the money (nearly $3 billion) in the president’s request is for transportation, housing, and care for the influx of migrants from Central America.   Just $45.4 million (.1% of the overall total) would be used to hire an additional “40 immigration judge teams.”  That’s 40 judges along with additional attorneys to process the newest illegal arrivals.

There are currently 243 judges working in the 60 immigration courts around the country.  Those judges are dealing with a nationwide backlog of 375,000 cases.  In Phoenix, 3 immigration judges are dealing with a backlog of 11,000 cases on their own.  In Newark, 5 judges have 15,000 cases waiting.  In Texas, 30 judges are dealing with a backlog of 55,000 cases statewide.  In California, there are 71,000 cases pending and only 31 judges to handle them.  The immigration courts are overwhelmed, underfunded, and understaffed.  In many courts, the average wait time to have a case heard is more than 2 years.

Adding 40 judges won’t do much to clear those caseloads, so the administration announced Wednesday that new migrants will move to the front of the court dockets and are now the priority for deportation.  That includes families in detention as well as unaccompanied minors.  In theory, these cases will be heard first, processed quickly, and people deported quickly, perhaps within the next few months, sending the message to Central America that the U.S. will return you home.  Like I said, in theory.

In public remarks from Texas Wednesday night, the president said, “it is unlikely your children will be able to stay.”  But the reality is much different thanks to the absurdity of our immigration system.  Law requires that kids from Central America go through the deportation process which means they will get their day in court.  The kids won’t be held in detention facilities while waiting for their court date, so they’re handed over to a friend or relative already living in the U.S.  And this is where the absurdity really kicks in: it’s HHS policy NOT to check the immigration status of that friend or relative.  In other words, a child who just came into the country illegally could be released into the custody of an adult who is also here illegally.  There’s a good chance that kid won’t ever be heard from again.  One estimate says about 90% don’t show up for their court date.

The president’s request for funding also includes $15 million to provide legal counsel for unaccompanied minors.  And, the ACLU just filed a class action lawsuit demanding that all unaccompanied kids get legal representation.  If all the kids end up with lawyers, going through the formal process of seeking asylum could take years and years, giving the child a reprieve in the U. S.

Earmarking most of the emergency funds for border enforcement and the care of the migrants is politically prudent for the president.  It makes him a law enforcing humanitarian and could endear him to his allies and Republicans he’ll need to negotiate with on future immigration legislation.

Even if he gets the money to help apprehend and house migrants, it does very little to achieve what we’ve been told is the main objective:  stem the tide of migrants by sending them back home quickly which would send a message to others that they shouldn’t even waste their time making the journey.

The president could seek a changes that would allow for quicker deportations and possibly deny the kids an opportunity to plead their cases before a judge.  But that would negate what current law was originally intended to do:  protect children who are either victims of trafficking or are escaping violence in their home countries.  But turning our backs on children?  That’s not who we are.  We’re America, the country that just can’t find the right balance between compassion and immigration enforcement.


Doug maher

Good to see you again. I enjoyed your commentary on cnn
And now look forward to seeing you at msmbc.

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