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Immigration crisis: Don't treat children 'dumped' in Arizona like inmates

  • 660-migrants2-AP.jpg

    FILE -- May 29, 2014: Elana Carmen, middle, with her daughters Abigail, right, and Ayala, of El Salvador, tie their shoes with yellow rope for shoe laces, at the Greyhound bus terminal in Phoenix. About 400 mostly Central American women and children caught crossing from Mexico into south Texas were flown to Arizona after border agents there ran out of space and resources. Officials then dropped hundreds of them off at Phoenix and Tucson Greyhound stations, overwhelming the stations and humanitarian groups who were trying to help. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

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    May 28, 2014: Judy Elizabeth Martinez, holding Marjorie, tries to reach family after being released by ICE at a Greyhound Bus station in Phoenix. She is from Guatemala and was flown from Georgia to Arizona by ICE. The Border Patrol says about 400 migrants were flown from Texas to Arizona because of a surge in migrants being apprehended in Texas. (AP)

Border patrol agents are the front line of Customs and Border Protection. Their priority is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S. and to ensure the security of our nation at its borders and ports of entry.

The men and women who responded to this noble call now find themselves looking into the faces of thousands of unaccompanied children who have made perilous journeys from their homes, primarily in Central America, to seek refuge in the U.S. 

These agents, who are already placing their lives at risk every day, are now faced with the biggest humanitarian crisis our country has seen in years. Apprehending children at our border is not the mission CBP agents signed up for – and it can’t be one they enjoy.

These kids aren’t refuse to be thrown away into detention or thrown back without a chance to see whether they are eligible to stay.

These are not your typical immigrants. They are children, under the age of 17. And because they are children, deeply rooted American values, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Flores v. Reno, compel us to treat them differently. 

Upon being apprehended by CBP, these unaccompanied migrants are supposed to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but the ORR is not structured to handle the current influx of children.

The crisis on America's southern border has required a change in procedure. On June 2, President Obama brought in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to take the lead in dealing with this problem. FEMA has access to a broad array of resources and has experience helping those whose lives have been affected by cataclysmic change.

Recent news stories have criticized the administration’s reaction to this crisis. But here’s what so many of those stories are missing: Of these children, who are being warehoused right now on our southern border, only a small minority will qualify for relief on humanitarian grounds. They include those qualifying for asylum, victims of human trafficking or other serious crimes and those who qualify for “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,” which can apply to children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. 

The majority of the children are released into the custody of family members in the U.S. while they go through immigration proceedings, but about 15 percent have nowhere to go and are placed in foster care or detained further.

Some folks are screaming that 85 percent of these kids will simply be released in the U.S., but that is not the case. They will be released into the custody of their families, when possible, while they go through removal proceedings, and most will ultimately be deported.

But while they are here in the U.S., they should not be detained like inmates. Our immigration detention system is not designed to be a place to store children before we deport them.

We certainly shouldn't offer them all legal status, but we should offer them temporary refuge as we work with neighboring countries to provide long-term protection to those fleeing violence and persecution. We should make sure these children have a safe place to sleep, food to eat and the basic necessities that have so often eluded them.

Our nation was founded on some pretty powerful ideas, and we’ve had a mixed history of upholding them. I’m hoping that this time America stands up for the tired, the poor, the weak, “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

These kids aren’t refuse to be thrown away into detention or thrown back without a chance to see whether they are eligible to stay. I look at these kids, and my own, and I can’t help but think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

T. Douglas Stump is an attorney in Oklahoma City. He serves as president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.