The border surge, a year later: New U.S. policies have led to less children crossing

This is the fourth in a series of posts, one year after the surge of unaccompanied undocumented minors who crossed across the U.S.-Mexico border, examining the effects it has had on communities, schools and children themselves.

After the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a peak last summer, President Barack Obama declared it a national emergency, setting in motion a number of proposals and initiatives to handle the tens of thousands of children who made it into the United States, and to avoid a future similarly chaotic surge.

The most key steps have been taken by the Obama administration, Congress and the governments of Mexico and Central America. They arguably have had an impact – since peaking in 2014, the flow of unaccompanied minors dropped sharply the first four months (October through January) of fiscal year 2015, with some 10,000 youths arrested at the southwest border, according to a report by Congressional Research Service.

"For far too long drug smugglers have continually used loopholes in our nation’s immigration law to make billions, all while preying upon the weakest in our society. The Protection of Children Act of 2015 stops this abuse and removes the loophole human traffickers have used for years."

— Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman, John Carter (R-Texas)

That marked a 40 percent decline over the same period in fiscal year 2014.

And as with virtually any move having to do with immigration, the steps are not sitting well people on all sides of the debate about the unaccompanied minors.

The administration assigned hundreds of Border Patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley sector.

The White House, with the governments of Central America, publicized through media in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador the dangers of crossing the border, and sought to dispel notions that the United States had rolled out a red carpet for people arriving without proper travel and immigration documents.

The message warning about criminals who prey on – and have no qualms about killing – minors who cross the border has appeared on billboards, in newspapers and on radio, among other venues.

The administration also allocated $9 million over two years to pay for lawyers for some 2,600 children. It built detention space in various states around the country, including places to hold families.

The moves that seek to deter illegal crossings vex advocates for the minors, who say they are inhumane and do little more than try to keep Central Americans in dangerous situations.

“The administration has said that this is a border situation that needs to be handled with a firm policy that includes detention, and it says that rapid removal is necessary to send a signal to others who might come,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “Somebody who has suffered rape or gang violence or seen family members killed isn’t going to be listening to what the U.S. government says is their policy.”

The U.S. State Department also established in-country refugee processing efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the nations most of the unaccompanied minors in the surge came from.

In a statement about it, the White House website said, “The program is part of the Obama administration’s response to last summer’s influx of unaccompanied children and families fleeing to the United States from Central America and will work to provide a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States.”

The program, the White House said, would also make it easier for children who have a parent who is in the United States legally to apply to live in this country based on refugee status or humanitarian parole.

Congress appropriated funding for such programs in its budget for fiscal year 2015.

Those who favor a stricter response to the unaccompanied minors surge see the handling of unaccompanied minor requests to live in the United States as an end-run around the domestic system.

“They’ve taken the concepts of refugee and parole and put them together and tried to manipulate the process away from the public view,” said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which supports strict immigration policies. “They’re doing pre-screening in other countries for people and using advance parole in certain categories for people who have no right to be here other than they have relatives who are here in the United States illegally.”

At the same time, under pressure and financial assistance from the United States, Mexico dramatically stepped up the interdiction of migrants from Central America – mostly women and children – and deportations, which been cited as a key reason the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border has dropped significantly.

The United States also is providing funding and guidance to Central American countries to address the factors – high crime, smuggling networks, lack of jobs, poor educational opportunities, poverty – that prompt many to flee.

There also have been several attempts in Congress to address varying aspects of the surge, and prevent its reoccurrence. Those proposed measures include denying countries aid that fail to address large numbers of people fleeing to the United States, and making it tougher to qualify for asylum and to remain in this country while certain cases are pending.

Earlier this year, House Republicans reintroduced bill addressing unaccompanied minors.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), introduced the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, which seeks to tighten the criteria for establishing a credible fear of persecution and, by extension, obtaining political asylum.

Chaffetz said that making the standards stricter would be one solution to the “long-exploited holes in our asylum practices.”

Chaffetz's law also seeks to, in his words, close loopholes in the catch-and-release program that enables undocumented immigrants to be released in the interior of the United States while awaiting a resolution of their immigration case.

The Protection of Children Act, reintroduced by Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Carter (R-Texas), calls for the quick return of unaccompanied minors who do not file a political asylum claim. Carter's law would also require that unaccompanied minors not have a parent living or able or willing to care for them back in their country in order to qualify for legal status in the United States.

At present, U.S. laws allow legal status for an unaccompanied minor who has one parent in the United States illegally and who claims that a parent living in their homeland is deceased or unwilling or able to care for them.

“For far too long drug smugglers have continually used loopholes in our nation’s immigration law to make billions, all while preying upon the weakest in our society,” Carter said. “The Protection of Children Act of 2015 stops this abuse and removes the loophole human traffickers have used for years.”

Immigrant advocates, however, say such measures will hurt the very children they purport to protect.

"It will strip the existing protections for children who come here," Chen said, "protections that make sure these children are (properly) screened for asylum and trafficking before they are sent back to their countries."

READ PART 1: Tens of thousands of immigrant children remain in limbo

READ PART 2: As crisis overwhelms system, philanthropy steps in

READ PART 3: Courts backlogged until 2019 to accommodate minors

READ PART 5: The perilous corridor to the U.S. slowly clearing out