Border Problem, Beltway Crisis

There is a problem at the border, but it is not a problem caused by children, and it is not a problem caused by giving fleeing children due process to claim asylum.

In less than a year, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended or, in most cases, turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. The children at the border, however, are only a symptom of a crisis of extreme violence in Central America and a crisis inside the Beltway caused by a dysfunctional Congress that misses opportunity after opportunity to fix our broken immigration laws.

This is a life and death issue. Partisan politics within the Beltway have resulted in pointing fingers at kids and at due process. Nothing illustrates this more vividly and more sadly than the House Supplemental Appropriations bill (H.R. 5230). H.R. 5230 would ultimately shift resources away from law enforcement priorities; i.e. away from the removal of criminals, and toward a fast track deportation process for children -- essentially creating a kangaroo court for kids.

Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with nearly 100 murders for every 100,000 people. Central America as a whole is home to less than one percent of the world's population but accounts for four percent of murders worldwide. There are more than 275,000 Hondurans and El Salvadorans living in the United States with "temporary protected status (TPS)." Absent comprehensive immigration reform, immigrants with this status cannot legally reunite with their children who are trying to escape the violence, so they resort to relying on smugglers. If Congress finally enacted comprehensive immigration reform, families would have confidence in using designated channels to flee danger and reunite children with their parents and relatives in America.

There must be a long-term and sustained approach to the issue -- through a foreign policy which pays more attention to supporting efforts by our neighbors to the South in promoting the rule of law and economic development, and through comprehensive immigration reform.

Both of these, however, comprise the long-term strategy. In the meantime, immediate action is required to reverse the tide of kids putting their lives in harm's way via the hands of smugglers.

The United States should establish in-country refugee processing, built on four major principles: (1) accessibility, meaning it would be easier for the children to get access to the program than to get access to the border; (2) efficiency, meaning the process would take weeks or months, not years; (3) a central focus on family reunification, as 90 percent of the kids are joining a relative and 50 percent are joining a parent; and (4) a clear eligibility standard so that a child can articulate a claim without needing an attorney to navigate our asylum system.

Congress' full cooperation to set up this system as a refugee processing program would be helpful, as it did in the past in clarifying the legal standard for Soviet Jews, Iranian religious minorities, and boat people from Indochina via the Lautenberg Amendment. If, however, Congress will not cooperate, the Administration can achieve a similar result through humanitarian parole, as it did for Kurds evacuated from northern Iraq to Guam in 1996, where they were given humanitarian parole and then applied for asylum after arriving in the United States.

The issue with the latter approach is that it would be more costly and complicated in terms of both time and money, and with less certain results. Through the refugee program, the child would enter with a clear legal status. Under humanitarian parole, however, the child would enter insecurely, uncertain about whether or not he or she could legally remain in the country. The refugee approach, with Congress' cooperation, would be better.

In the most immediate term, it is critical for Congress to enact the supplemental bill (S. 2648) which is advancing in the Senate, to provide resources to ensure that providing safe housing and access to hearings for the children who have entered this country does not come at the cost of diverting resources from immigration enforcement priorities or the refugee program.

Let's hope House leadership can stop blaming kids for our problems and instead protect both the integrity of our borders and the welfare of children.