Immigration and human rights advocates are expressing outrage over President Obama’s proposal for Congress to speed up deportations of child migrants caught at the U.S. border.
“This administration is throwing these kids under the bus and returning them to countries where their lives may be at risk,” Wendy Young of Kids In Need of Defense, an advocacy group for unaccompanied minors, told msnbc. “They’re hitting the panic button way too soon.”
Obama on Monday formally requested a $2 billion infusion to help cope with the unprecedented number of kids caught at the southwestern border. In a letter to leaders on Capitol Hill, the president urged Congress to expand the Department of Homeland Security's authority with “an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.”
The proposal would unravel a bipartisan provision adopted under President George W. Bush that protected children fleeing countries that do not share borders with the U.S. Children traveling from countries other than Mexico or Canada are currently exempt from expedited removal screenings and are given asylum hearings. The administration is asking for that to change.
If the proposal is enacted, Border Patrol agents would be tasked with screening children after they're arrested along the border. The interview would effectively give children one shot at convincing officials that they have legitimate concerns for their safety and should remain in the U.S. to go through immigration and asylum proceedings.
Advocates warn that the streamlined screenings will not adequately address the children’s needs, and that Border Patrol agents -- unlike legal experts and social service providers -- are ill-prepared to evaluate whether children have grounds for seeking legal status in the U.S.
“They’re not child-appropriate and they’re not child-friendly,” Melysa Sperber, director of the advocacy group Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, told reporters Monday.
President Obama’s proposal signals that the administration is now viewing the border crisis as an immigration issue rather than as a refugee emergency.
By speeding up deportations for migrant children, the administration is trying to squash inaccurate rumors that young people making the journey into the U.S. illegally would qualify for the same status provisions temporarily granted to so-called DREAMers (kids brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents). Republicans in recent weeks have blamed that miscommunication on the Obama administration, arguing its policies have become a magnet for young people wanting to start a new life in the U.S.
“The journey is unbelievably dangerous for these kids. The children who are fortunate enough to survive it will be taken care of while they go through the legal process but in most cases that process will lead to them being sent back home,” Obama said Monday from the Rose Garden. “I’ve sent a clear message to the parents in these countries not to put these kids through this.”
“The problem is that our system is so broken, so unclear that folks don’t know what the rules are,” he said.
The president's move baffled many advocacy groups, who view it as appeasing conservative calls to ramp up deportations. The proposal would put many lawmakers -- particularly congressional Democrats -- in a difficult place politically. Not only would it put lawmakers on record as voting to deport thousands of children who are traveling alone, but it could also turn away kids who potentially have legitimate claims for asylum.
“There’s going to be an enormous backlash,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told msnbc. “I’d be hard-pressed to see many of the senators who led the charge on comprehensive immigration reform supporting a bill that effectively rolls back protections for kids who are fleeing violence.”
Advocates stress that the driving forces behind the surge are complex and begin long before the children reach the U.S. border. More than 54,000 children have been arrested along the southwestern border since October alone, but the administration is bracing for as many as 90,000 this year. Most of the children are coming from three Central American countries -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- where conditions of violence and extreme poverty have escalated in recent years.
The bottleneck of kids being arrested along the border has the administration scrambling to keep up. Border Patrol agents have begun running out of beds at detention centers. Obama tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to patch up coordination between agencies. Meanwhile, makeshift shelters are being thrown together in facilities ill-equipped to fit the needs of kids.
Law enforcement officials are required to hand over minors to the Department of Health and Human services within 72 hours of their arrest. From there, the children are typically sent to a network of shelters that offer legal and social services to try and help match kids up with family members and navigate the immigration courts.
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet with leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador later this week to discuss the root causes of the massive migration. Vice President Joe Biden was in the region earlier this month, while Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to visit Guatemala next week.
Congressional leaders have made their rounds along the U.S. border to survey the administration's emergency efforts. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to lead a team of lawmakers to visit the border region this week, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a similar journey this past weekend.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded to President Obama's jabs at House Republicans for not taking up bipartisan immigration reform legislation after it passed the Senate last year by falling back on his repeated assertions that the GOP does not trust the president to enforce the law.
"In our conversation last week, I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written," Boehner said in a statement. "Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue."