Washington, D.C. — As the conversation surrounding solutions to solving the humanitarian issue unfolding at the nation’s border intensifies, new analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that the president can accelerate the process for screening the unaccompanied children who are fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala without sacrificing fairness or due process and without changing existing law.
In the past few years, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have become increasingly more violent and inhospitable to children, with gangs and organized crime increasingly targeting children. With up to 90,000 children estimated to arrive this year, some legislators have proposed changing existing law to prioritize speedy deportations over fair proceedings, believing that children from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala should be pushed through an expedited screening process more similar to that of Mexican kids, a process that evidence shows is not working.
CAP experts believe this approach would be a serious mistake and that solving the challenging issues presented by these child refugees will require significantly more resources, starting with the $2.7 billion that the Senate has proposed in order to tackle the problem.
In creating a policy for dealing with child refugees, CAP experts believe the United States should adopt the following recommendations:
- Maintain Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, custody. All children who arrive at the border should be turned over to ORR custody as soon as possible. Once in custody, these children should be screened by child welfare specialists and receive know-your-rights trainings that explain the legal requirements for making a case for protection.
- Provide court-appointed counsel. Children as young as toddlers cannot be expected to represent themselves in a formal immigration court proceeding without the benefit of legal counsel. The effect of having a lawyer is clear: Children with attorneys are more than four times as likely to win their cases, while only 1 in 10 children without an attorney currently win. Congress should provide the resources to enable the administration to appoint counsel to represent all children.
- Increase staff in the immigration courts, and speed up the process. To move children’s cases through the immigration court system quickly, avoiding the multiyear backlogs, the courts must be adequately staffed and trained. Children should have their claims heard by an immigration judge no later than 60 days after arrival, and the courts should proceed on a “last in, first out” principle, hearing the cases of the most recent arrivals first.
- Focus on smugglers and traffickers. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement should focus their resources on cracking down on the smugglers exploiting these children and bringing them to the United States, rather than on low-priority, noncriminal immigrants. Going after these organized criminal elements will also require cooperation from Mexico and other Central American countries.
- Develop in-country processing programs. The United States should devise a program that allows children and others with refugee claims to have their cases heard by trained officers while still living in their home countries. This process was used for refugees in East Asia during and after the Vietnam War and for Haitian refugees in the 1990s. A similar process could be set up for Central American refugees that would not preclude them from also seeking asylum if they were to make it to the United States.
These recommendations are not meant to be exhaustive, sketching out the broad outlines of a way forward.
To speak to an expert on this topic, please contact Tanya S. Arditi at gro.ssergorpnacirema@itidrat or 202.741.6258.