Immigration Reform: Do Children Change the Argument?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

With immigration reform heavy on the agenda for post-midterm politicians who make it through the electoral cage matches, underage immigrants have become a particularly sensitive topic. While immigration as a more general topic may be a popular policy whipping boy for both sides of the aisle, criticizing either Congress for inaction or President Barack Obama for overzealous action — or under-zealous, depending on the topic — the specific issue of children crossing the border is one that has some stepping more carefully. Still, while some begin to see shades of grey, both legally and morally, when the age of immigrants comes into the picture, others are adamant that the issue is unchanged.

The House Homeland Security Committee hearing made the distinction between viewpoints particularly clear. In questioning the Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) spoke first on the need for better fencing to keep children out along the Southern border, and questioning Johnson on why the turnaround on return of immigrants is less rapid for unaccompanied minors. “We don’t have a fence down there and if we did we wouldn’t have five year old children coming across,” said Rogers, according to NBC. “I’ve been down to Nogales where they have the large detention facility and I’ve seen the folks that we detained be debriefed, cleaned up, put on a bus, and sent back. Why aren’t we doing that with these children?” he asked. Johnson replied that the law demands that unaccompanied and underage children be handed over to the Health and Human Services Department.

“Well, the law required Obamacare to begin two years ago and it hasn’t stopped the administration before when it wants to do something different. This is a humanitarian crisis, it’s a national security crisis for our country and I don’t know why these children are being treated any differently,” said Rogers — which is where the controversy comes in.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke late last week on his communication with leaders in Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, discussing the need to return children to their countries, the U.S.’s overall legal requirements and stances, and the difficulties in handling some of the more complex issues that come along with these laws and needs. He noted that in his discussion with foreign leadership of countries in question: “Everyone agreed that these children should be reunited — with their parents in the country from which they came. Everyone agreed to that,” but clarified that, “You’re clearly not going to send a child back to a circumstance where there is no one there for them.”

The situation is further complicated by the need to dissuade further attempts. In part, this is for economic and security reasons to stem the flow of immigrants that then are particularly problematic for authorities to return to their country, requiring further steps than an adult illegal immigrant would require. However, it is also in part a necessary prevention for humanitarian reasons as the coyotes presently bringing young immigrants over are often abusive and or sexually exploitative, further risking children who are admittedly sometimes leaving behind more of the same.

To that end, Biden was clear that “those who are pondering risking their lives to reach the United States should be aware of what awaits them. It will not be open arms.” Instead, consideration by a judge and the eventual return to their country of origin for “the vast majority” awaits young immigrants. Somewhere between 60,000 and 74,000 unaccompanied immigrants below the age of 18 are expected to cross into the U.S. in 2014, according to the Obama administration and a recent report from Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Kids in Need of Defense. Facing demand this great, demand that has notably been increasing over the course of the last few years, is placing a great deal of strain on U.S. resources.

So why the increase? In his opening statement for the Tuesday Hearing on Unaccompanied Children, U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) gave one possible explanation, suggesting that “a series of Executive Actions by the [Obama] Administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law — a relaxed enforcement posture — along with talk of comprehensive immigration reform” has pushed families and news organizations in other nations to believe the U.S. will be receptive to immigrants. “Recent internal DHS surveys of these children reveal that more than 70 percent believe they are going to stay in the country,” said McCaul, calling on the administration to “send an unambiguous message that those arriving will be promptly sent home.”

Further, “I, for one, do not want to see another child harmed because we have not clearly articulated the realities on the ground, consistent with current law,” said McCaul, going on to praise Johnson’s open letter to the children’s parents — a translated version available here — which makes clear the dangers of sending a child to the U.S. and the legal unlikelihood of the child remaining.

For his part, Johnson discussed steps to be taken by his department moving forward to best handle the incoming groups of children in his statement to the House Committee. This included processing minors as rapidly as possible and slowing the rate of illegal underage immigrants arriving in the Rio Grand Valley where many children are presently crossing. He also emphasized the importance of seeing the issue as a humanitarian one as well as a border security issue. “We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border — hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared, and vulnerable. How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and our values.”

Biden also made the U.S.’s policy towards such immigrants clear, stating that, “Make no mistake, once an individual’s case is fully heard, and if he or she does not qualify for asylum, he or she will be removed from the United States and returned home. Everyone should know that.” He listed additional resources being provided to handle the onslaught of underage immigrants, such as additional “government enforcement resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals humanely,” as well as asylum officers, immigration judges, immigration attorneys, with consular officers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras being sent to aid in the identification of children so as to more succinctly return them to a guardian.

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