Chance Seales, Media General National Correspondent – WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) -- Ongoing gang violence thousands of miles away in Central America has led to a second surge of unaccompanied minors showing up at the U.S. southern border.
The resurgence is close to hitting levels seen during the peak wave of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) that garnered major attention in 2014.
"The root causes that are driving children out of Central America have not changed, and that's violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras," explained Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). She said the threats are "caused by gangs and criminal cartels who are very specifically and viciously targeting children at very young ages."
Once the kids are apprehended in border states, they are issued a notice to appear (NTA) for an immigration hearing status and the Department of Health and Human Services takes charge of placing them with an appropriate sponsor, typically a family member. If the Department of Homeland Security deems the child's asylee claim insufficient, his or her case is then routed to the Department of Justice's federal immigration courts, where a judge decides the final outcome.
That's where KIND comes in.
"I've seen children as young as three and four years old in immigration court standing by themselves in a very formal courtroom setting, in front of a robed immigration judge, while a trial attorney from the Department of Homeland Security is arguing for that child's removal from the United States," recalled Young. "And that toddler is standing there alone, expected to make a defense against being deported."
Discussing the cases in her D.C. office, Young's eyes narrow and her mouth tightens, insisting, "It flies directly in the face of everything that we stand for, in terms of due process and fundamental fairness."
Border crossings rise
More toddlers could soon be headed to federal court if current migration trends hold.
In the first six months of fiscal year 2016, more than 27,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended by border patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. A year ago, that number was down to 15,616 UACs reports Pew Research Center. During the 2014 surge, it was 28,579, a tick higher than current levels. To better respond to the growing need, HHS set aside just under $55 million this fiscal year to fund legal services for UACs in the form of know-your-rights presentations and a limited amount of free legal representation.
KIND is a recipient of a sub-grant through HHS to provide representation, but Young also points out that her staff has "trained over 13,000 lawyers from the private sector to represent these children in court, so it's not just a government funded effort; it's also private sector supported effort."
Immigration is a massive hot button in 2016, and the $55 million figure riles many at a time when millions of American children are educated in sub-standard schools, go to bed hungry and drink tainted water. It's often heard in these quarters that the rising number of child migrants – most of whom are over the age of 14 – is a deliberate problem of President Barack Obama's making.
In 2010, the Obama administration changed its policy on non-violent migrants arriving who claim to have a "credible fear" of persecution in their home countries. Instead of detaining the migrant, authorities are now required to issue a NTA and release them into the country. The number of children now claiming a "credible fear" has skyrocketed.
Mr. Obama "basically neutered the deportation threat, and that's really kept the surge going," declares Ian Smith of the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
"Smugglers are coaching these people to say, ‘If you look like a minor, tell them you're a minor and they'll release you. If you guys look like a family, tell them you're a family and they'll release you,'" claimed Smith, an investigative associate.
No-show rates in immigration court have also increased significantly, on the order of 40 percent, according to congressional findings. To fix that, Smith suggests the Obama administration is pressuring border patrol to change its procedures.
"Agents are saying that they're being told not to issue these notices at all, because if they don't issue a notice then none of it gets recorded," said Smith. "So, the no-show rates will then go down."
UAC legal ease
Federal law charges HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement with ensuring "to the greatest extent practicable, that all unaccompanied children in custody have access to legal representation or counsel."
Ideology aside, it is the law of the land. Young says her organization not only follows the law, but also a moral compass.
"We've had families tell us, ‘I'd rather see my daughter die on the way to the United States than die on my back doorstep,'" said Young.
Furthermore, she hopes critics will remember that, "Seeking asylum is not illegal immigration. It's allowed under our immigration laws to ask the United States for protection. And it is the right thing for these children and families to do because they are fleeing violence in their home country; they are a refugee population."
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales