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U.S. faced with humanitarian crisis over influx of migrant children

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Migrant children and parents, most of whom who have travelled from Honduras, wait in Tequixquiac, Mexico for the train known as

TRACY WILKINSON/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT Enlarge Image

Migrant children and parents, most of whom who have travelled from Honduras, wait in Tequixquiac, Mexico for the train known as "The Beast" that will take them to the United States border.

In the past nine months, enough unaccompanied children to fill Yankee Stadium have shown up at the U.S. border with Mexico.

They’re coming because violence is on the rise in the Central American nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And they’re coming because smuggling rings have figured out that minors pose a particular problem for U.S. authorities trying to police the border.

This influx of migrant children — a more than threefold increase from five years ago — represents both a humanitarian crisis and a vexing public policy problem.

Unlike adults trying to sneak across, the children typically turn themselves in to the Border Patrol as soon as they reach the U.S. And thanks to anti-trafficking laws that predate the Obama administration, deporting minors is an arduous process.

It includes a guaranteed right to a hearing on refugee status. The wait time for a hearing is pushing two years, which prompts the Office of Refugee Resettlement to release many of the kids into the custody of relatives, where they might or might not be heard from again.

What to do?

One key is to meet the surge of children with a surge of immigration judges to the resettlement centers where the children are initially housed.

By doing that, the kids’ cases could be heard on an expedited, yet humane, basis. Those who can demonstrate that they face real danger if returned home would be allowed to stay. Those who can’t would be deported.

Once some of the children began reappearing in their home countries, families would rethink their willingness to spend great sums, and to put their children at such risk, to send them to the United States. The heavy sales pitches and misinformation campaigns used by smugglers would be undermined.

The Obama administration has taken some preliminary steps in this direction. Yet as sensible as this approach seems, it faces opposition from both extremes in the immigration fight.

Some on the left argue that all the children should simply be allowed to settle in the United States. That would undermine the rule of law and serve as a magnet for tens of thousands more.

On the right, lawmakers who have insisted on spending billions of dollars on border security have been surprisingly reluctant to invest in a robust court system.

The entire United States has only 220 of these specialty immigration judges, who have a backlog of 350,000 cases. The U.S. Senate approved a measure last year that would double their numbers. The House, however, has yet to get on board because many members see judges as gateways to legal status rather than necessary arbiters of cases.

Some Republicans are also keen on using the influx of children to score political points by blaming it on President Obama’s push for broad immigration overhaul. Yes, the possibility of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — particularly children — might be playing some role in the influx. But the main drivers of this crisis are existing conditions and laws, not potential future ones.

 

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