Underage Illegal Immigrants: 5 Key Facts on Rights and Costs

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Every year, an increasing number of children and teens are making a harrowing journey across borders into the U.S; and every year, an increasing number do so alone. These children present major problems for enforcement authorities, politicians, social workers, and the nation as a whole.

1. The Numbers

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 as well as Kids in Need of Defense. This is a considerable increase even from just 3 years ago, according to the CGRS/KIND report, A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. Immigration System. Until after 2011, the average year saw approximately 6,000 to 8,000 illegal unaccompanied immigrants. Then, in 2012, the number jumped up to 14,000, in 2013 to almost 25,000, and this coming year looks to continue the trend. The Obama Administration, according to Reuters, predicts that 2015 could see an increase to almost 130,000 undocumented minors.

2. The Costs

Unsurprisingly, underage immigrants place an entirely different strain on government resources. Food and transportation are obvious costs, and housing has proven overrun enough to require emergency shelters to be set up on the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, according to Reuters. There’s also the administrative cost that goes with finding and taken children into custody, and then running them through placement — some in search of parents who are difficult to locate, and others unable to return to their country — or deportation.

The White House puts estimated costs at $868 million for 2014, a cost that could increase to $2 billion should the 2015 projection of 130,000 undocumented minors prove accurate. This presents a major budget problem for Democrats and Republicans alike. The National Research Council reports that an immigrant without a high school diploma ultimately cost $89,000 over his or her lifetime, not including public service use and tax payment — which could account for a degree of error.

3. Counsel in Court

The budgetary problem presented by minor-related expenses hardly encourages extra efforts towards affording non-citizens rights. However, the humanitarian side of the argument claims that this group of unrepresented children morally and legally demand advocates in the court and immigration system. In its general recommendations, the CGRS/KIND report included a section on legal counsel and objective child advocates.

With the historic numbers of children coming alone to seek protection in the United States, we need to meet our international and moral obligation to ensure a fundamentally fair process,” said immigration policy expert and KIND President Wendy Young. “Due process for these uniquely vulnerable children requires that we provide them at the very least with a lawyer to represent them.” The last is an arguable point. Normative humanitarian values would demand a child receive aid in bringing across her or his argument for remaining in the United States and seeking out family already present. However, the actual legality of the claim is questionable. Adult immigrants are not given the same rights to legal representation if they cannot afford lawyers; immigration law does not hold the same requirement as laws applied to U.S. citizens. This applies to all immigrants — from children, to the mentally disabled, to victims of sex trafficking, as well as refugees. Pro bono attorneys are sometimes provided on a volunteer basis, but there are no guarantees, and legally the U.S. court system is not required to provide immigrants with guaranteed legal representation.

That being the case, the argument can still be made, and indeed is still being made, that minors in particular require aid beyond that which is given to adult illegals. The argument could be made that while counsel and advocates would be an additional financial strain, they might also close cases more quickly.

4. Abuse and Remaining in the U.S.

Despite a lack of legal obligation, Reuters reports that those children who are seeking to escape a domestic abuse situation in their countries have considerably higher probabilities of receiving protective status from immigration courts and being allowed to remain in the United States. However, escape from gang related problems is not given the same consideration. Considering the sudden enormous increase in underage immigrants is quite possibly explained by a high number of kids looking to escape drug gangs and crime – whether violence from, or recruitment to — this constitutes a major oversight.

Rebecca Walters, lawyer in Virginia at Ayuda, a group that aids immigrants, said that many of her cases deal with boys who have seen friends murdered when they chose not to take up with gangs in their home country, according to Reuters. She gave the example of one boy from El Salvador who lived with an abusive father who he could not escape outside of the home because of gang recruitment that awaited him when he left. Walters noted that in this case, “it would have been almost impossible” to prevent both the boy and his brother, ages 15 and 16, from being deported if the father had not been abusive and the two had merely sought sanctuary from gang involvement.

5. Humanitarian vs. Monetary

The influx of unaccompanied alien children … across the southwest border of the United States has resulted in an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response,” wrote President Barack Obama in a memorandum Monday, going on explain his instructions to the Secretary of Homeland Security; an “interagency Unified Coordination Group” is to be established to “ensure unity of efforts across the executive branch in responding to the humanitarian aspect of this situation.” Some are critical that this will not be enough, claiming the president’s harsh deportation strategy during his time in office has exacerbated a human rights situation. Others claim that the influx is increasing because he presents a soft face on immigration that some take as invitation.

Either way, the need for financial backing is clear and present, but the funding is still being hastily put together to aid in managing the unexpected costs. What this ultimately means is that two sides to the argument will have to mediate. The side that argues many American children do not see proper aid, and many citizens lack proper legal council, and that funding should go towards combating abuse and crime within the U.S., rather than aiding other nation’s youths. The opposition would argue that the U.S. has both a moral and logistical responsibility — this group can hardly be ignored — to give the best possible help to a group of children seeking refuge or family in our nation. This means “post-release services” as well, according to the CGRS/KIND report. The report also suggests that aiding other countries in patching their own gaps in child protection services might reduce the problem at its origin.

As Wall St. Cheat Sheet wrote last month, underage illegal immigration is a growing problem made worse by the failure of the federal government to address reform. Political analysts believe comprehensive immigration reform — which requires action by Congress — will not take place this year.

Politically, immigration is a divisive topic. It’s highly likely that regardless of what politicians do, someone within their constituency — supporters, business backers, or parties — is going to be angry with them. Everyone from businesses to social justice interests can agree that America’s immigration system needs addressing. Everyone from Obama, to Jeb Bush, to Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) has discussed the urgency with which the subject demands attention. However, when staring down the barrel of an election vital to the balance of power on the left and right, one that’s bound to be tight in more than a few states, successful but controversial immigration reform is not the topic that incumbents want on their list of vulnerabilities. This is especially true for Republican Congress members who represent state with high populations of voting immigrants, and slightly less true for Democrats, who will likely be hurt eventually by continued avoidance of the topic.

While immigration is acknowledged by all to be important, it’s not what’s keeping most voting Americans up at night — at least according to a new Gallup poll taken between May 8 and 11. When asked what the most important problems facing the U.S. were, 20 percent pointed to unemployment and jobs, 19 percent chose dissatisfaction with government — i.e. Congress, politicians, leadership, corruption, power abuse — and 17 percent picked the economy as the most important problem. Immigration was tied for last at 3 percent, alongside the gap between rich and poor, the environment, and race relations, and down 1 percent from the last polling in early April.

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