With the flow of unaccompanied minors along the border on the rise again after a dip in 2015, the Obama administration is preparing to classify them all as refugees to ease their entry into America, according to a new report.
The report, released Monday by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, details a border problem that peaked in summer 2014, when tens of thousands of teenagers and younger children from Central America arrived at the U.S.-Mexican border. The Obama administration chose to treat them as the victims of human trafficking under a statute offering greater protection.
The Department of Homeland Security set up a program that would allow the minors to be sent to live temporarily with relatives in the United States. But few have taken advantage of the program — by mid-August, only 3,344 applications had been submitted — because most of the relatives living in the United States are in the country illegally and, therefore, do not meet the eligibility requirements.
Now, the government — working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — is setting up a program that would screen minors for eligibility as refugees. But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, argued that the administration’s policy rewards illegal immigrants who paid smugglers to escort their children to the border.
“The government is now completing the smuggling process by delivering them to their illegal immigrant families,” he said.
Up to now, most of the unaccompanied minors who have come to the United States have been released with instructions to show up for an immigration hearing to determine their status. In practice, Krikorian said, most of them never show up.
The administration’s refugee plan would confer special status on the recipients, who could become immediately eligible for a full range of government-assistance benefits, obtain green cards after a year, and then apply for citizenship four years after that. What’s more, they could sponsor their parents for legal residency — even if they have been living in the United States illegally.
Krikorian said the parents would have to return to their home countries first. But he added that the Obama administration routinely grants waivers promising to let them return once they are out of the country.
After hitting 69,000 in fiscal year 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border dropped to 40,000 in fiscal year 2015. Apprehensions so far this fiscal year are running at almost twice the pace of the previous year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Krikorian said the drop probably resulted from Mexico responding to U.S. pressure to increase stops of youths entering that country from the south before they reach the U.S. border. He said the numbers might be rising again because Mexico has eased up its enforcement efforts or because smugglers have become more adept at evading law enforcement.
Under the refugee plan, the government would send officers to screen minors identified by the U.N. in their home countries and then fly those who qualify directly to the United States in order to avoid the danger of making the long trek through Mexico. The CIS report cites estimates that up to 9,000 people might be permanently resettled in the United States this year.
But the report cites requirements under international law that a refugee must be able to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Fleeing criminal gangs or escaping economic turmoil are insufficient justifications.
“The problem, of course, is that even the U.N. acknowledges very few of these kids would qualify as refugees,” Krikorian said. “But they may just be giving them refugee status anyway. We’ll see how it works.”
The new surge is sure to strain U.S. budgets. The CIS report notes that the fiscal year 2017 budget request for the Unaccompanied Children program is $1.226 billion, an increase of $278 million from the current year. Combined with the expected use of $95 million in contingency funds, the true cost would com e to $1.321 billion. That amounts to $17,613 per minor, double the $8,217-per-minor cost in fiscal year 2010.
Krikorian said the federal government should respond to the crisis by prosecuting smugglers and the people who pay them, pressuring Mexico to accept Central Americans who travel through the country to get to the United States, and detaining minors who do arrive. If need be, he said, the government should set up tent cities, as has been done in the past with Cuban and Haitian migrants.