Though problematic because of its legally incorrect use of language to describe children migrants and other errors, Julia Preston of the NY Times wrote an important story today. The article is below, followed by our analysis:
With border authorities in South Texas overwhelmed by a surge of young illegal migrants traveling by themselves, the Department of Homeland Security declared a crisis this week and moved to set up an emergency shelter for the youths at an Air Force base in San Antonio, officials said Friday.
After seeing children packed in a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex., during a visit last Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday declared “a level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley. The alert was an official recognition that federal agencies overseeing borders, immigration enforcement and child welfare had been outstripped by a sudden increase in unaccompanied minors in recent weeks.
On Sunday, Department of Health and Human Services officials will open a shelter for up to 1,000 minors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, authorities said, and will begin transferring youths there by land and air. The level-four alert is the highest for agencies handling children crossing the border illegally, and allows Homeland Security officials to call on emergency resources from other agencies, officials said.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Johnson said the influx of unaccompanied youths had “zoomed to the top of my agenda” after his encounters at the McAllen Border Patrol station with small children, one of whom was 3.
The children are coming primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, making the perilous journey north through Mexico to Texas without parents or close adult relatives. Last weekend alone, more than 1,000 unaccompanied youths were being held at overflowing border stations in South Texas, officials said.
The flow of child migrants has been building since 2011, when 4,059 unaccompanied youths were apprehended by border agents. Last year more than 21,000 minors were caught, and Border Patrol officials had said they were expecting more than 60,000 this year. But that projection has already been exceeded.
By law, unaccompanied children caught crossing illegally from countries other than Mexico are treated differently from other migrants. After being apprehended by the Border Patrol, they must be turned over within 72 hours to a refugee resettlement office that is part of the Health Department. Health officials must try to find relatives or other adults in the United States who can care for them while their immigration cases move through the courts, a search that can take several weeks or more.
The Health Department maintains shelters for the youths, most run by private contractors, in the border region. Health officials had begun several months ago to add beds in the shelters anticipating a seasonal increase. But the plans proved insufficient to handle a drastic increase of youths in recent weeks, a senior administration official said.
Mr. Johnson said Pentagon officials agreed this week to lend the space at Lackland, where health officials will run a shelter for up to four months. The base was also used as a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant youths in 2012. It became the focus of controversy when Gov. Rick Perry of Texas objected, accusing President Obama of encouraging illegal migration by sheltering the young people there.
Mr. Johnson said the young migrants became a more “vivid” issue for him after he persuaded his wife to spend Mother’s Day with him at the station in McAllen. He said he asked a 12-year-old girl where her mother was. She responded tearfully that she did not have a mother, and was hoping to find her father, who was living somewhere in the United States, Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said he had spoken on Monday with the ambassadors from Mexico and the three Central American countries to seek their cooperation, and had begun a publicity campaign to dissuade youths from embarking for the United States.
“We have to discourage parents from sending or sending for their children to cross the Southwest border because of the risks involved,” Mr. Johnson said. “A South Texas processing center is no place for a child.”
Officials said many youths are fleeing gang violence at home, while some are seeking to reunite with parents in the United States. A majority of unaccompanied minors are not eligible to remain legally in the United States and are eventually returned home.
I am pleasantly surprised at Jeh Johnson’s swift action and his unequivocal message: The United States Government must not abuse children migrants regardless of the situation. Jeh Johnson is right that a South Texas Processing Center is no place for a child.
But his prior statement that parents of children must be discouraged from sending their children to cross the border because of the risks involved is not as straightforward as it sounds.
To be sure, the journey from Central America to the United States by land is extraordinarily dangerous. One minor client of ours was abducted right after crossing the U.S./Mexico border and held for ransom. Luckily, he was rescued after other victims escaped the house they were being imprisoned in and alerted authorities.
I could go on. But has Jeh Johnson walked in the shoes of these children in their native countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where the government is powerless to protect children from gangs and other predators?
The simple truth is this: There are often more risks for a child to stay in their native country than for them to take the journey to the United States.
More than half the children that walk through into our office did not live with their parents in their native countries. Without parents, children in Central America are at an even higher risk of being exploited by powerful street gangs; sexual predators; and other bad actors.
The vast majority of Central American children who are brought to the U.S. unlawfully have been abandoned by one or both parent, or both, or their parents are residing in the U.S. to ensure their kids don’t go hungry.
Minors do not have the sufficient intent to violate immigration law. Yet the first sentence in this article states: “With border authorities in South Texas overwhelmed by a surge of young illegal migrants traveling by themselves…”(emphasis added.)
Minors are brought to the United States. They do not commit the act of violating the law. So why does the NY times permit this patently false description of children fleeing their homelands? It’s frankly a bit perplexing.
Preston also uses the word “young”, which is itself problematic. An 18 year old is still young, yet they are clearly not a part of the class of individuals described in the article because they are not under 18.
The following example would be an accurate for the vast majority of children entering the U.S. at the border: “a surge in children brought to the United States unlawfully.” Granted, some children flee with just the clothes on their back without telling any adult. Another alternative example would be this: ” a surge in minor children entering the United States without legal permission.”
The article concludes that “the majority of unaccompanied minors are not eligible to remain legally in the United States and are eventually returned home.” Both of these conclusions are very problematic.
For example, the vast majority of Mexican unaccompanied minors are in fact deported to Mexico within 48 hours of arriving in the U.S. Many deported Mexican minors are actually eligible for relief as special immigrant juveniles, refugees, victims of trafficking, or other means.
The fact that most Mexican children are deported does not mean that they were not eligible to remain legally in the United States.
Also, Jeh Johnson and Julia Preston seem to be ignorant of the fact that in 2012 DHS deported 14,000 unaccompanied Mexican children. U.S. authorities will claim that the children return to Mexico voluntarily but this is impossible given that they are minors. They did not come for a golf trip. They came to live in the United States.
However, the vast majority of Central American unaccompanied minors are not deported to their native country, regardless of whether they are eligible to remain in the U.S. legally. The reasoning is simple: DHS cannot deport children back to Central American countries within the 72 hours that they have to transfer the child to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In our experience, well over half of unaccompanied children from Central America are eligible for permanent residency in the U.S. through special immigrant juvenile status, asylum, or other means. Even if a child is not eligible to remain legally in the U.S., DHS cannot detain a minor under the age of 18. Therefore, once released, it would be near impossible for DHS to force a child to return to their native country.