PhotoThe House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing today entitled, “Dangerous Passage: The Growing Problem of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border.” Committee members questioned the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson on the growing humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Thousands of children from Central America are arriving seeking protection from the violence in their home countries. While Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) warned early not to use this issue and hearing for the purpose of political grandstanding, it was clear from the outset that some members couldn’t help themselves. More than one blamed the Obama Administration’s immigration policies for the crisis. In doing so, they conveniently ignored the dangerous push factors that are causing Central American kids to flee their homes, and instead, they focused on initiatives like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—for which these new arrivals are not eligible—and the promise of immigration reform for pulling them here.

Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) began the hearing by reminding us of how dangerous the journey is for kids and the perils they face on the way. Yet, his remarks quickly turned towards what harsh tactics we could employ against the kids to send a strong message and deter future flows. He suggested mandatory detention as one solution. Others suggested that sending the National Guard to the border, quicker removals, and more border fences would help.

Secretary Johnson testified for two hours. He started by explaining how DHS was indeed implementing a public awareness campaign to educate people in Central America that the journey is dangerous, that there are no “permisos” available for their kids, and that they do not qualify for initiatives like DACA, which are only available to young people who have lived in the United States since June 15, 2007. However he also reminded Congress that Honduras is the murder capital of the world, rightly noting the push factors largely responsible for their exodus.

Throughout the hearing, Sec. Johnson also had to remind members of Congress of the laws they passed to protect unaccompanied minors and prevent their further victimization. He had to repeat, more than once, that DHS has 72-hours to transfer children (other than those from Canada and Mexico) into the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS). The law also mandates that they be placed in removal proceedings and be afforded an opportunity to make their case to an immigration judge. As the Secretary explained, he could not simply put the kids on a bus and return them to Central America. By law, Congress itself has mandated that children go through a different process than adults—a process designed to take into account their particular vulnerabilities.

HHS’s May 2014 publication explains the process and laws that govern how we treat unaccompanied minors:

By law, HHS must provide for the custody and care of unaccompanied alien children. An unaccompanied alien child is a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States; has not attained 18 years of age; and, with respect to whom, there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.

“Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress transferred the care and custody of UAC to HHS from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to move towards a child welfare-based-model of care for children and away from the adult detention model. In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which expanded and redefined HHS’s statutory responsibilities, Congress directed that UAC must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”

Yet, many members continued to ask why we couldn’t more quickly deport these children. Sec. Johnson went on to explain that children are not subject to “expedited removal,”—a summary process which deprives them of both the right to appear before a judge and the right to explore any status they might be eligible for in the United States. The expedited removal process happens so quickly that individuals subject to it do not have time to consult with an attorney or their family, and often do not understand that they are being deported. Not only does the law preclude the government from using expedited removal against unaccompanied children, but doing so would entirely ignore our humanitarian responsibility to this particularly vulnerable population—a population that is in dire need of protection and care.

Photo Courtesy of C-Span.

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