By Trevor Hill
June 11, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--This year, the number of minors illegally crossing the border north through Mexico into the United States has increased to approximately 48,000 (92% higher than last year) and is projected to reach over 60,000 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year. The vast majority of these children is not coming from Mexico, but in fact is fleeing Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
To deal with the influx, immigrant minors and adults alike are being shipped to warehouses and other facilities in order to hold them until they can be deported or granted a green card. About 700 minors are currently being held in a warehouse Nogales, Arizona, where living conditions have become deplorable due to overcrowding and lack of supplies. Fortunately, this is only a temporary housing for the children who will spend only enough time in Nogales to receive vaccinations and be checked medically before being sent to facilities in Ventura, California; San Antonio, Texas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
This overcrowding is due to a lack of legal representatives willing and/or able to represent these children in Immigration Court. Because courts are not required to fund lawyers for the children, they must find a legal representative through advocacy groups or pro bono law programs.
If these children (approximately 17% of whom are below the age of 13) cannot find a lawyer, they must represent themselves in court. According to a thinkprocess.org article, “One pro bono lawyer told the Los Angeles Times that children in the courtroom are often ‘confused and frightened,’ like the child who carried his teddy bear for comfort and another who wet his pants when he faced the judge.”
In response to the lack of lawyers available to these minors, the Obama Administration has started a program that will distribute $2 million in federal grants to approximately 100 lawyers and paralegals in order to enroll them to represent the immigrant minors being faced with trials in Immigration Court.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supports this resolution. “We’re taking a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society,” he said in an official statement. “How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings — many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse or trafficking— goes to the core of who we are as a nation.”
The $2 million will be allocated to nonprofits in 29 US cities with large numbers of immigrants. It would then be used by said nonprofits to recruit the lawyers and paralegals needed to represent the immigrant minors in court. Each enrollee will be expected to serve in the program for roughly a year. To compensate for their service, each lawyer and paralegal will receive a stipend of approximately $24,200, as well as an award for around $5,700 which can be used toward tuition or paying off student loans.
In addition, after being prompted by Obama Administration officials, emergency task forces have opened up facilities on two different military bases which will be used to house up to 1,800 kids.
House Republicans are attributing the influx of immigrant minors from Central America to lax border policies set in place by the Obama Administration. They point to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a memorandum written by President Obama in 2012 which granted adults who came to the US as minors over 5 years ago increased immunities from deportation, as the reason for the sudden increase in immigrant minors.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) disagrees with Republicans. Harkin is the chair of the subcommittee in charge of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill, which will determine the budget for the Health and Human Services department (HHS). The HHS is responsible for housing, feeding, and caring for the minors after they have been processed by border officials. Harkin stated that, “From everything I’ve read, it’s economics, it’s violence.”
Harkin, as well as White House officials, attributes the influx of child refugees to the declining economy in Central America. They believe that it is highly unlikely that children in poverty-stricken areas in Central America are as well-versed in US immigration policy toward minors as Republicans claim they are.
“The problem is that the border is not going to get secure on its own,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), a GOP advocate for a discussion on immigration in Congress. “All these issues that are coming up, all these things are under the current system. If you are satisfied with the status quo, leave it exactly as it is.”
Diaz-Balart expressed that he is reluctant to make a push for a GOP-backed immigration bill because of his increasing distrust of President Obama in general. He has doubts that the President would be willing to compromise with Republicans by enforcing tougher border policies, which would have to be included in any immigration bill that House Republicans back. “It’s no secret that nobody trusts President Obama,” he said.
Although immigration reform is being halted by gridlock in the House over ideologies concerning border security, the President and his administration are making sure that the needs of the undocumented child immigrants are being met and that they will not be subject to the detestable conditions of the temporary housing facilities for much longer.