A Humanitarian Crisis

SOURCE: AP/Eric Gay

Detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.

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The number of children fleeing violence by themselves to the United States from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has skyrocketed over the past few months. No less than 47,017 children have arrived so far in 2014—a 92 percent increase from 2013—and as many as 90,000 children are expected by year’s end. These children are escaping danger in their homelands and running for safety not only to the United States, but also to neighboring nations including Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica.

As attention on this issue shifts from the nation’s southern border to inside the Beltway, it’s important to keep the following five facts in mind.

1. Violence is causing these children to flee
2. Smugglers and traffickers prey on these children, who are increasingly younger and female
3. This is a regional crisis
4. There are no free passes into the United States as unaccompanied minors can be deported
5. Some in Congress are playing politics with a humanitarian issue

Both short- and long-term solutions are needed

As the number of children crossing the border increases, major challenges remain. Reports findthat the U.S. Border Patrol is overwhelmed. Its facilities, as recent images show, are not appropriate for children and it is urgent that the government finds more suitable shelters and accommodations. The following are a few of the many actions the government can and should take:

  • The administration must ensure that children are released from ORR custody into safe environments—preferably to a family member, not to someone who might do them harm.
  • Likewise, it is critical to ensure that these children have access to counsel as they move through the immigration system. There is no guaranteed right to counsel in immigration law, even for children. The Obama administration has just announced a new program to bring 100 lawyers and paralegals to wherever they are needed in order to provide counsel for unaccompanied minors. While is a good first step, many more lawyers will be needed to truly address the scope of the problem.
  • Passing immigration reform would also help mitigate the crisis by clearing the backlog of people waiting for visas and allowing parents in the United States to sponsor their children to immigrate legally.
  • The government must also crack down on smugglers and traffickers by using immigration enforcement resources to identify and apprehend those that are exploiting unaccompanied minors.
  • We must support efforts in the sending countries to reintegrate those children that return to their home countries and to mitigate the dangers that are forcing children to flee in the first place.
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