Much has changed in the year since the humanitarian crisis hit the U.S. border, maxing out federal resources with the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children. Since then, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended while crossing into the U.S. has been cut by half. Nonetheless, immigration courts are coping with the largest backlog of cases ever seen before. And despite efforts to dramatically increase pro-bono legal services provided to the unaccompanied kids on their day in court, some children still stand before an immigration judge without an attorney and completely alone.
Through a year’s worth of change and turmoil, what remains the same is the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform making its way through Congress.
In June of 2014, when the surge of undocumented immigrants reached its height, leaders in Congress were announcing the official death of bipartisan legislation for an immigration overhaul. Now a year later, chances of a long-term solution appear just as bleak. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, did not mince words during a hearing Tuesday covering last year’s border crisis: There’s no chance of seeing comprehensive immigration reform pass through Congress while President Barack Obama is in office.
“Quite honestly, the reality of the situation is we’re not going to do comprehensive immigration reform, not in the next 18 months,” Johnson admitted during the hearing. “We don’t do comprehensive very well because it’s complicated. These things aren’t easy to deal with.”
The unprecedented number of children and families apprehended at the border highlighted an already convoluted immigration system that was not prepared to handle the massive humanitarian crisis. More than 68,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southwestern states in the 2014 fiscal year — a more than 360% jump from the year before.
U.S. Border Patrol has since reported a 50% drop in the number of migrant kids fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The reasons for the dramatic decrease may have just as much to do with the countries from which the children are fleeing as the U.S. government’s own response.
Top administration officials from Vice President Joe Biden to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña have met with political leaders in those countries to address the root causes of the massive migration while targeting the networks of smugglers promising families safe passage through Mexico.
Testimony provided at Tuesday’s Senate hearing painted the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis as a web of agency actions operating within a framework of outdated immigration laws. Most outstretched were the immigration courts, where budget cuts and low staffing levels have compounded a staggering backlog of more than 450,000 pending cases.
There was little consensus within the Republican-led congressional committee over the factors that prompted the thousands of children to make the dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S.
Ron Johnson, who faces a tough re-election challenge that’s expected to be one of the most-watched Senate races in 2016, used Tuesday’s forum to aggressively challenge Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Echoing Republican rallying cries that circulated during the height of the border surge, Johnson blamed the president’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a magnet driving the surge.
“We have to look at the laws and incentives to illegal immigration,” Johnson said. “DACA is one of those incentives.”
A February report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, found that the top driving factors for the rapid increase of migration were identified as crime, violence and economic poverty. In Honduras, forced extortion was most common, while Guatemalans and Salvadorans pointed to their government’s inability to combat violence and gang activity as their reasons for fleeing north.