Unaccompanied Minors Captures Attention, Both Financial and Political

The increasing numbers of children coming across the U.S. border alone and without an adult is gathering much more attention within the federal budget and now within the political arena. Referred to as unaccompanied minors, these young people and children cross over the border in an effort to escape events in their own countries and frequently come here without a family or destinations. The projected number for this year is 60,000 children and is dramatically higher than the 13,000 in FY 2012 and much higher than the average of 6800 a year between 2004 through 2011. Under pressure from appropriators, especially the Senate Appropriations Chair, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the Administration has raised its original budget request of less than $900 million to more than $2.2 billion for FY 2015. In January appropriators had increased funding by nearly $500 million. The additional increase for FY 2015 will place greater pressure on the overall Labor-HHS-Education budget. The increased numbers is leading some Republican members of Congress to blame the problem on the Administration’s enforcement of immigration policy.

Most of the unaccompanied children are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras through Mexico. A report last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mission to Central America: Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States, documented the challenges and problems these young people face both in their native country and here in the United States. The report also describes the dangers of making the trip to the US alone with no adult support or supervision. In fact the trip usually involves exploitation, trafficking in labor and sex and violence. The report by the Bishops’ Mission sought to determine why there is such a dramatic increase in the flow of vulnerable youth, what should be done in regard to international policy and what should happen to these youth once they are in the United States. Based on their surveys, interviews and observations the report indicates that there is no simple answer but instead a number of interrelated factors, what they labeled the “perfect storm” of a number of problems including: the absence of economic opportunity, the lack of quality education and access to education generally and the resulting inability for individuals to financially support themselves and their families in their home communities, and the desire to reunify with family in the United States. An additional significant factor is the increased violence including gang violence and coercion within parts of the countries most affected.

Critics claim that immigration enforcement is encouraging children to make the trip while others counter that lack of progress on immigration legislation is the key factor. The President announced last Monday the creation of a working group to respond to the challenge with Cecilia Muñoz, White House Director of Domestic Policy announcing the initiative with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and the Federal Emergency Management Agency taking the lead in coordinating transportation, housing, basic care and medical treatment for the children crossing the border each week. The funding request was a result of overtures by Mikulski with the funding flowing through the Office of Refugee Assistance in HHS. Many of the children are being housed on air force bases and in group homes contracted by the government.

The Report by the Bishops included recommendations that the best interest of the child standard should be applied in legal proceedings, the Department of Homeland Security should conduct child-appropriate credible fear screenings that include questions related to gang related activity, and having child welfare experts assisting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in screening children who arrive at the US/Mexico border.

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