For two years, the growing number of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the Mexican border into Texas was seen as an intriguing phenomenon.
Today that “phenomenon” is a full-fledged crisis that has caught the U.S. Border Patrol, American political leaders and overburdened relief agencies off guard and faced with a dilemma for which there are no easy solutions.
This year, Star-Telegram reporter Diane Smith wrote a front-page report about the work of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, one of the official sites where the Border Patrol sends young people who have entered the country illegally. It is a place where they can receive food, shelter and education while authorities search for the parents or determine whether they will be deported.
Many of the kids, typically between ages 5 and 14, are from Central America fleeing gang violence and poverty, and embarked on their perilous journey — often with the aid of human smugglers known as “coyotes” — in search of work or family members already in the country.
In 2013, for example, the Border Patrol encountered 8,068 undocumented and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, which was up from 1,115 in 2009, Smith reported. Last year 5,990 children were from El Salvador and 6,747 were from Honduras.
This year immigrants younger than 18 are flooding into Texas at a rate so fast that officials are estimating that 60,000 to 90,000 will have entered the country by the end of September.
Immigration laws regarding minors dictate that those apprehended from countries that border the United States (Mexico and Canada) are to be repatriated unless there are extenuating circumstances such as their being victims of human trafficking. Children from noncontiguous countries are taken into custody, but they cannot be held at Border Patrol facilities longer than 72 hours, meaning they usually are placed in a shelter or sent to live with relatives if they can be located.
The shelters are filled to capacity, causing authorities to open three temporary facilities at military bases, including Lackland Air Fore Base in Texas, according to CNN.
Although many of the children were sent here or were left on their own with the hope that once they arrived they would be allowed to stay, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson insists that those caught at our borders, regardless of age, “are priorities for removal.” They are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship, he said.
But that likely will be the claim of politicians who will use this latest surge of young illegal immigrants as proof that our borders are not secure and that the Obama administration’s overall immigration policy is a failure.
The truth is that this country has had a failed immigration policy for decades, and recent attempts to produce comprehensive immigration reform have gone nowhere because of a stalemate in Congress.
Some Texas officials, including Attorney General Greg Abbott, are proposing that Texas create its own border security initiatives. Though Abbott is requesting that the federal government fund the effort, some state legislators are suggesting that the governor call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the issue.
We don’t need a state-sponsored border patrol operation. That is the federal government’s job, and it must enforce the existing laws.
But Washington must also take clear and decisive steps to deal with the immediate crisis, which might include working with Mexican authorities to stop the children immigrants before they cross Mexico and get to the U.S. border.
And at some point Congress has to adopt comprehensive immigration reform.