By Jeanne Atkinson Two years ago this month Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., proudly announced, “Before the American people give up on the Congress, look at what we achieved today in a bipartisan fashion.” The Senate had just voted 68 to 32 to pass a sweeping immigration reform bill that, while far from perfect, put the country on a path to resolve the situation affecting 11 million undocumented people already in the country and revise the laws for future immigrants. But that effort collapsed in the House of Representatives and now the Senate, far from being part of the solution, is adding to the problem.
Among the many challenging immigration issues facing our country is how to address the large numbers of vulnerable immigrants fleeing violence, poverty and chaos in their Central American homelands. About this time last year, U.S. border immigration officials arrested 162,700 unaccompanied minors crossing our border over the span of six months. Since then the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States has significantly dropped, but tens of thousands are still in the United States.
Recently a Senate appropriations subcommittee chaired by Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., slashed $50 million that the Obama administration requested to support local immigrant legal services groups who represent and advise these unaccompanied children on the way our complex process works. This program has been in place for years; the mandates were originally signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush. The representatives provide orientations: when to show up in court, what to expect to be asked, and how to avoid relying upon fake “notarios” who will claim expertise and demand money to provide guidance, among other topics. These basic instructions are crucial for kids who don’t speak English and don’t know the law or the court processes. Without assistance, some children who would qualify for asylum will be deported back to the deadly barrios in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala from which they fled, and many will die, as we have already seen.
There is irony here. The government spends millions every day warehousing in private detention centers thousands of indigent immigrant mothers and their young children, the latest wave of asylum seekers. For months these women and children remain detained awaiting hearings on their fate, even though there is no reason to believe detention is necessary to ensure they show up for their hearings. CLINIC has a single full-time attorney at the biggest of these facilities, in Dilley, Texas, which can hold 2,400 women and children. That facility alone, if filled, would cost the government more than $200 million a year to maintain. If fiscal conservative policies are truly at issue here then the exorbitant resources spent on family detention should be first on the list to defund.
While mothers and children languish in detention racking up costs, the Obama administration continues to expedite the cases of unaccompanied children who need time to find pro or low bono counsel. The withholding of funds to provide legal support to unaccompanied children would make an already difficult situation harder and more likely that injustices will take place. The Senate should restore those funds in the final bill.
But even if Congress refuses to fund the necessary legal support, the administration is not powerless. The administration should end its policy of expediting the cases of unaccompanied children through the deportation process, so that they can obtain necessary support rather than being quickly shuffled through court hearings where, without representation, they cannot tell their stories and benefit from the limited legal remedies that exist for them. Even more importantly, the administration can immediately end its flawed family detention policy that only serves to further traumatize asylum-seekers. In the end, we need them both to act on behalf of these young people. Children’s lives are at stake.
Jeanne Atkinson is the executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.
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