WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s approach to reducing the number of unaccompanied children moving across the U.S. southern border came under sharp criticism from both sides of the aisle Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“The administration’s deterrence approach is wrong, it is not working and it will not work,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee’s senior Democrat, said. “These children are fleeing for their lives. They will not be deterred.”
About 40,000 unaccompanied children were caught by U.S. Customs and Border Protection while crossing the border in 2015, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. A majority of children were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“It’s frustrating,” Thomas Homan, executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations and the Department of Homeland Security, said.
A major issue for many of the committee members is the availability of legal representation for each child. Over 40 percent of unaccompanied minors are not showing up for their immigration hearings.
“This means a lot of these minors are nowhere to be found,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., the committee chair, said. “Not only is this a problem because these minors are not being properly cared for, but because some of them are committing serious crimes.”
Minors must be held accountable, Grassley said, a statement that was echoed by committee members and witnesses.
“If any of us drive home tonight and get arrested for reckless driving, you’re going to get a summons to appear in court,” Homan said. When you don’t appear in court, you’re going to be arrested.
In the immigration context, officials have trouble finding many of the immigrant children. Although each child is given a guardian, a relative or other sponsor, the court summons for immigration hearings might not be reach them, causing headaches for law enforcement and courts.
When a child fails to show up in court, DHS is rarely able to locate them. Only 120 of the approximately 2,000 children the agency tried to find have been arrested.
When those children are arrested, the agency is often ridiculed and comes under fire for civil rights violations when officials just enforcing the law, Homan said.
“We’re not going to apologize for doing it,” Homan said.
The agency doesn’t have the capability to monitor the volume of immigrant children coming into the country, and it doesn’t have a good indicator of the safety levels of the countries they come from.
“I think there are some that are escaping because of fear, but I think there are many more taking advantage of the system,” Homan said.
The administration must take responsibility and monitor minors after they’ve been placed with a guardian, Grassley said. The government needs a plan to hold minors accountable, and quickly and safely return them to their home country.
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