Congress is nearing an impasse over how to deal with the overwhelming flow of unaccompanied minors across the Mexican border. Failure to address this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis before the August recess will stand not only as a political failure, but as a moral one for Congress.
For months now, thousands of children have risked their lives with human smugglers to come into the U.S. illegally rather than remain in gang-run neighborhoods in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The problem is not how to catch the kids; Border Patrol agents say they turn themselves in hoping for protection, often under the misguided notion that they will get permission to stay in the United States.
The problem is what to do with the 57,000 children who are already here (and those who are still coming), a process governed by the 2008 Wilberforce law that requires border agents to take them into custody and within 72 hours turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services until a hearing can be held. The system, however, is overwhelmed – housing facilities are filled beyond capacity, lawyers are unavailable, and some kids have complained about mistreatment or lack of food and medical care. The Obama administration has rightly acknowledged that the federal government should increase its capacity to process the children through immigration courts. That will mean spending money.
The administration has asked for $3.7 billion to increase border security and expand immigration courts while safely caring for the children. Republicans have been talking about giving the administration less money and amending the 2008 Wilberforce law. Democrats are willing to spend more than the Republicans, but they don’t want to match Obama’s request either; they would leave the 2008 law alone. These are substantive differences, but not unbridgeable ones.
Enhancing border security is a separate issue, especially since interdiction is not the problem at the moment, though there may be an argument that agents are so overwhelmed by the influx of children that they can’t effectively tend to their regular duties.
How to process the children, though, is not a fight over philosophy. The minors are in the United States; they must be dealt with humanely under applicable U.S. laws. Failing to provide the money to do so for the sake of political gamesmanship is an abrogation of Congress’ responsibility.