Screenshot1In the last week before the August recess, House and Senate members are trying to finalize vastly different bills that would provide additional funding to address the government agency needs associated with the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The House’s $659 million bill falls short of President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in funding, and the Senate is still debating its own plan. As Congress wrangles with the issue, tens of thousands of Central American children who fled violence in their home countries are now in the U.S. awaiting their fate. How the U.S. will treat these children became the subject of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. Lawmakers showed where they stand on the issue of unaccompanied minors, with some expressing their view that they are criminals who must be quickly be removed and others characterizing them as refugees in need of protection.

The hearing was supposed to focus on oversight of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), giving its new director, Leon Rodriguez , an opportunity to address the range of issues facing USCIS. As one aspect of his testimony, Rodriguez acknowledged his agency’s role in the humanitarian challenge, noting that USCIS is “supporting efforts to address the flow of unaccompanied children across the Southwest border” through its jurisdiction over asylum applications filed by the children. Several committee members, however, jumped at the chance to turn the oversight hearing into an opportunity to attack positive immigration policies as the source of the problem. Some members attempted to again blame the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for the rush of Central American children coming to the U.S., even though data does not support their claims. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said it was clear during his trip to the U.S.-Mexico border that “DACA is the magnet” drawing people from Central America.

Additionally, between DACA and years-long waits for court dates, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) insisted, “The president has created this situation.” Chaffetz said children from Central America cross the U.S. border “because they feel like nothing is going to happen to them.” And because of the reallocation of resources to process the roughly 50,000 children who have made the treacherous journey, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) insisted that families waiting for visas are separated by longer backlogs in the immigration system because USCIS has had to prioritize the children’s cases. “We’ve got a lot of relatives and families that are being separated because you have taken resources,” he told Rodriguez.

While Republicans often described the children as opportunists trying to take advantage of a generous system, several Democrats tried to refocus the conversation on the harm the children have faced. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) raised concerns about the lack of privacy during credible fear interviews at the family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. It could be difficult for some children and mothers to discuss abuse or whether they had been trafficked without privacy, she said, adding that “if they are a victim of trafficking, we want to find that out.” And after Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) questioned how intently USCIS checks to confirm if an immigrant is or is not a gang member, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said the committee was stuck talking about gang members instead of the actual issues. He asked Rodriguez, “Do you ask 5-year-olds if they’re in a gang?” Gutierrez encouraged his fellow committee members to go to the border for themselves to see that the children are refugees, not dangers to the public. “What you have is children fleeing violence,” he said.

It’s no surprise that Congress continues to be divided ideologically on how to treat the children arriving in the U.S. from Central America, however it is shocking at how easy it is for some Member of Congress to dehumanize and exploit their tragedies for political reasons.

Photo Courtesy of C-Span.

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