In recent weeks, President Obama and congressional Republicans have begun to offer the same simple-sounding solution for dealing with the flood of children crossing the U.S. border alone: Send the kids home. But with tens of thousands of them churning through the system, some just toddlers, the logistics are overwhelming. A decade ago, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which cares for minors soon after they are picked up, handled just 6,200 kids a year. By 2013 that figure had ballooned to almost 25,000. Since October, more than 57,000 children have arrived by themselves, most from Central America, and 22,000 more have been detained with their parents. While the majority of those caught are teenagers, the greatest increase has been among children younger than 12.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents find that most don’t try to run; in fact, they want to be caught. The kids hope that being apprehended will begin another journey, one that will end with permission to remain in the U.S. Children from Mexico can be deported without a formal hearing. But a 2008 law intended to combat sex trafficking says those from nonbordering countries—such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—must be allowed to plead their cases before a judge. The influx has pushed wait times for immigration cases to a record high of 587 days, or more than a year and a half, according to researchers at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
As of June 30, fewer than 500 of the 57,000 have been sent home, and more children continue to arrive every day, despite pleas from the Obama administration to Central Americans not to come. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been tapped to coordinate the government’s response. Officials are scrambling to charter planes and buses, sending more agents to the border region, and hunting for more shelter sites and people to run them. Even the U.S. Coast Guard has been brought in to assist with transportation. “The recent dramatic increase is difficult and distressing on a lot of levels,” CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said at a congressional hearing in July.
The White House has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, including $1.8 billion to care for the newly arrived children and $879 million to pay for detention, prosecution, and what is officially referred to as “removal.” Much of that would go to private companies and contractors—a list that runs from American Airlines (AAL) to medical practitioners and shelter providers. Senate Democrats have proposed covering $2.7 billion of the request. House Republicans say they will consider approving as much as $1.5 billion, but only if the 2008 law is relaxed to make it easier to turn kids away.
One proposal, put forward in mid-July by a pair of Texas lawmakers—Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, and Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat—would change the 2008 antitrafficking law to treat Central American children more like Mexicans, expediting their cases and keeping them in government custody rather than releasing them to stay with family members or other sponsors while their claims are considered. But that would require both additional bed space and more judges, both of which are already in short supply.
The first stop for apprehended children is one of the CBP processing centers scattered among the Southwest border states, where agents conduct screenings. It’s one of more than a dozen federal agencies they may encounter. Many of the children arrive with little more than a phone number of a parent or relative in Los Angeles or Houston. Those lacking identification may undergo bone or dental X-rays to help determine their age if they appear to be about 18 to figure out whether they should be legally treated as adults.
The CBP is also charged with making children “fit for travel,” according to a March report from the University of Texas at El Paso. That includes feeding, bathing, and clothing them. At one station, in Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas, agents trained to patrol the border “routinely” wound up buying sandwich fixings and drinks for the kids at local grocery stores and taking the children’s blankets to wash and dry “off-site”—whether at a laundromat or at their own homes, the report doesn’t say.
The CBP turns them over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which contracts with private companies and nonprofits to run shelters. The agency had budgeted for 5,000 beds this year, far fewer than it needs. As a result, some children wind up staying in CBP holding cells much longer than the 72-hour maximum prescribed by law. “We saw one 3-year-old child who had been held for 12 days,” Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said after touring stations in the Rio Grande Valley in July. The ORR, looking to expand capacity at shelters, has put out bids offering to pay shelters an $80-a-day rate per child—roughly the price of a night at the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott in Northern Virginia. Providers must offer services including classroom instruction, exercise, and medical care.
The Department of Defense has stepped in to help the ORR by opening emergency shelters on military bases in Oxnard, Calif., Fort Sill, Okla., and San Antonio. Private sites under consideration include a former convent in Syracuse, N.Y., that could house as many as 200 kids; plans for converting an office park on Long Island have been dropped. Some proposals have been stymied by local opposition; federal officials backed out of plans to move kids into a shuttered college in rural Virginia even after signing a five-month lease. About 85 percent of the kids in shelters are released after about a month to relatives throughout the U.S. or sponsors who will house them while their cases are deliberated; since October, more than 40,000 children have been dispersed this way.
In recent weeks, immigration lawyers say, the government has begun giving priority to asylum interviews for children over adults. In some cases, hearings are being conducted by videoconference because of the shortage of judges in border areas. “This is an abrupt change in policy in order to speed everything up for the kids,” says Virgil Wiebe, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who runs a clinic offering legal assistance to immigrants.
A growing chorus of immigrants’ rights advocates and scholars argues that the gang violence terrorizing Central American countries, particularly Honduras, means many of these children should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said he expects most will ultimately be repatriated. Immigration and Customs Enforcement carries out deportations on 135-seat chartered jets—informally known as ICE Air—through a contract with CSI Aviation, based in Albuquerque. The agency recently added two aircraft to the fleet at Brownsville, a hot spot for crossings. ICE flies other deportees commercial, though under Department of Homeland Security guidelines, each unaccompanied child is supposed to be flown home during daylight hours escorted by at least two ICE agents—potentially adding a gargantuan task for already overwhelmed agents.
Even before the recent influx, the system wasn’t perfect, according to Amy Thompson, who followed flights from Houston to Tegucigalpa, Honduras—one of the largest points of origin for the current group of migrant children—while researching the repatriation process for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. In some cases, Thompson says, she saw ICE agents leave children to wander airports alone after landing back in their home countries. “It’s just been politically untenable to even improve services for these kids we were seeing, let alone prepare for emergency situations,” she says.