‘Catch and Release’ of Unaccompanied Illegal Immigrant Minors on the Rise
Under Trump, feds still placing often-smuggled migrant children throughout U.S. by the tens of thousands
The federal government, even after almost six months with President Donald Trump at the helm, continues to allow tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children into the country — taking them to relatives across the land.
In a sweeping executive order on immigration in January, Trump ordered changes to the way the federal government deals with unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. A memorandum by then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly the following month called for prosecuting would-be sponsors in the United States who themselves are illegal immigrants.
But it does not appear to have changed much on the ground. When U.S. Border Patrol officers encounter non-Mexican youths alone on the U.S. side of the border, they turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who in turn transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
"I confirmed with our HQ people, and we have not changed anything," Customs and Border Protection spokesman Roger Maier told LifeZette in an email.
Department of Homeland Security officials told The New York Times about two months ago that some illegal immigrants sponsors who had paid smugglers had been arrested. But statistics from the Office of Refugee Resettlement suggest the overall numbers have been unaffected. The agency from October through June placed 37,586 children with sponsors in the United States. That roughly equals the 38,845 youths who either got apprehended after sneaking across the border or turned themselves in a border-crossing station.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said decision-makers in the Department of Homeland Security have failed to carry out Trump's will.
"The problem with that is we're seeing a pickup of traffic again … The rhetoric worked, but the powers that be didn't follow though in the president's promises," he said.
Again, statistics bear that out. After plummeting from 4,407 in January to 997 in April, illegal border crossings by unaccompanied children in the southwestern United States have climbed two straight months. The 1,961 figure in June, the most recent month available, was 1,961 — the highest since January.
That trend mirrors an overall increase in border crossings by illegal immigrants. Apprehensions increased from 11,126 in April to 16,089 in June.
Concern Over 'Catch and Release'
The failure to change procedures involving children is part of a larger concern that the Trump administration has not fully turned away from the "catch and release" policies of former President Barack Obama.
Judd said immigration enforcement officers have altered the way they deal with adults caught crossing the border, but he added that the changes have been hampered by a lack of detention space. That is not an issue with youths, he said.
|Central American youths placed with U.S. sponsors|
|*First nine months|
|Top 10 states fiscal year 2017|
|New York||3 529|
|New Jersey||1 986|
|North Carolina||1 311|
"There is space to hold them, but they've made a policy decision not to hold them," he said.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said the statistics and comments by Judd are troubling.
"It is not much different, maybe not at all different, from what the Obama administration did," she said.
Research sponsored earlier this year by the Center for Immigration Studies found that more than a third of youths placed with host families failed to show up for immigration hearings. The Associated Press reported that 80 percent of the children — 106,802 — went to sponsors who are illegal immigrants themselves.
"And I think it's terrible policy to encourage the government to complete the job of the coyotajes … It's just a funnel and encourages this flow."
Sporadic raids targeting unaccompanied minors with final deportation orders, including one last month, have resulted in a handful of arrests. But experts contend it would represent a monumental task to locate and remove all of them.
Part of the justification for the policy has been the need to comply with the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2000 law designed to help children who are victims of trafficking and violence. Critics, however, contend that the children arriving at the border from Central America are coming because relatives have paid smugglers; they are not trafficking victims.
"If that's all it is, it's not governed by anti-trafficking law," said Christopher Hajec, director of litigation at the Immigration Reform Law Institute. "And I think it's terrible policy to encourage the government to complete the job of the coyotajes … It's just a funnel and encourages this flow."
Crisis First Flared in 2014
The unaccompanied minor crisis flared in the summer of 2014 — the result, many argue, of a misinterpretation of Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which granted quasi-amnesty to illegal immigrants whose parents earlier had brought them to the United States.
The surge waned in 2015 and then picked up again the following year. Arrivals are now on a pace to nearly equal fiscal year 2016. Vaughan said families and smugglers are responding to the credible belief that U.S. authorities will not block the youths from staying once they arrive.
"A few of us have been saying that all along …The smugglers know our policies better than Americans do," she said.
Vaughan said the federal government could send counter signals by aggressively prosecuting parents who pay smugglers to bring their children to America.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the government could learn from the way former President Bill Clinton responded to a similar challenge in the 1990s, when travelers began flushing passports down airplane toilets and then claiming asylum. Clinton sent adjudicators to major airports to make quick determinations about those claims and return people whose claims were baseless.
The Trump administration could do something similar at the border, Mehlman said. He also said Congress could change the trafficking law to make a distinction between true victims and the clients of smugglers.
"This was legislated by Congress; the change should come from Congress," he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed, noting that unaccompanied minors sometimes are MS-13 gang members and sometimes get exploited by the gang.
"It can be ended, and it must be ended," he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week.
Trump's initiatives to crack down on "sanctuary" jurisdictions and temporarily bar travelers from six terrorism-compromised countries already have ended up in court. Vaughan said any move against the Central American youths would bring a similar fate.
"There's certainly going to be a legal challenge, and maybe they think they have about enough of those right now," she said.
(photo credit, article image: Pride Immigration)