Richard Cowan, Reuters, May 28, 2014
Tens of thousands of children unaccompanied by parents or relatives are flooding across the southern U.S. border illegally, forcing the Obama administration and Congress to grapple with both a humanitarian crisis and a budget dilemma.
An estimated 60,000 such children will pour into the United States this year, according to the administration, up from about 6,000 in 2011. Now, Washington is trying to figure out how to pay for their food, housing and transportation once they are taken into custody.
The flow is expected to grow. The number of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrants who are under 18 will likely double in 2015 to nearly 130,000 and cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion, up from $868 million this year, according to administration estimates.
The shortage of housing for these children, some as young as 3, has already become so acute that an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has been opened and can accommodate 1,000 of them, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in an interview with Reuters.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and it requires a humanitarian response,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said in an interview. The Maryland Democrat, a former social worker, has likened the flood of unaccompanied children to the “boat people” of past exodus movements.
With an even bigger funding challenge looming for 2015, Mikulski worries corners might be cut. She said children could end up being placed in federal holding cells meant only for adults and that funds might have to be shifted from other programs, such as refugee aid, to help cover the $252-per-day cost of detaining a child.
Mark Lagon, who coordinated the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to combat human trafficking, tied the sharp increase in unaccompanied minors to both U.S. economic factors and escalating violence in Central America.
Republican Representative John Carter of Texas blamed Obama for what he called a “nightmare at the border” with “tens of thousands of children” being smuggled into the United States.
In an opinion piece in The Hill newspaper last month, Carter said Obama’s policies had created an “invitational posture for illegal immigrants.” He said the administration helped to fuel the crossings with a 2012 decision to give temporary relief from deportation to certain children brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Immigration advocacy groups point out that the unaccompanied youths coming to the United States since 2011 would not qualify under that program.
A report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, based on interviews of 404 children aged 12-17 who left their home countries, found that 70 percent did so because of either domestic abuse, or violence “in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors.”