Over the past several months, a tremendous border immigration surge of Central Americans has come to the Southwestern United States. No one knows for certain what has caused the increase in the number of people seeking refuge in the US, but generally it is credited to a perceived softening of immigration enforcement policy by the Obama Administration and overwhelming violence and corruption in countries including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Regardless of where responsibility lies, the US government has had no choice but to respond to the surge, and that is proving very difficult.
According to a recent report from the US Border Patrol, the number of families coming to the US border without documentation has increased almost 500%, from just over 9,000 in FY2013 through June, to over 55,000 for the same period in FY2014. The number of unaccompanied minors has increased just over 100%, from 27,884 through June of FY2013 to 57,525 for the same period in FY2014. Many of the individuals apprehended have not been trying to avoid US immigration enforcement officials, but have sought them out and turned themselves in willingly.
The Obama Administration has taken a Jekyll and Hyde approach to immigration policy in the US. While deporting the highest number of individuals of any President, topping 2,000,000 deportations earlier this year since taking office in 2009, he has also created programs designed to keep families together and lighten some of the harsh consequences of current US immigration law. One of those efforts is a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The DACA program was instituted in June 2012. It allows for protection from deportation and employment authorization for individuals who had been in the US for a specified amount of time and who were brought to the US at a young age. An applicant must also meet other requirements, including a lack of serious criminal record, and must have either obtained some education in the US or served in the US military. Some experts attribute the surge to misinformation, whether it be through church leaders offering hope of a better life or smuggling operators marketing efforts, of what this program is and what it does.
Another force driving Central Americans to seek hope in the US is the overwhelming amount of crime and corruption in the region. In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report showing that Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala all made the top 10 list for homicides by country in the world, with Honduras leading the way in first place. Gang violence and drug production and trafficking are rampant, and government is unable or unwilling to intervene.
US Immigration Law allows for those coming to the border who fear persecution in their home countries because of race, religion, political belief or other protected categories to seek Political Asylum. This opportunity arises out of the US’s international obligations as signatories to the 1951 Gevena Convention on Refugees. The process of assessing a person’s fear of persecution involves the apprehending agency (generally US Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security or DHS), the Asylum Office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services under DHS, and an interpreter if the person does not speak English comfortably.
Also, US law allows for minors who arrive in the US as orphans or otherwise abandoned children to seek protection as Special Immigrant Juveniles. The option also applies to children who have been the victims of abuse or neglect. The child must establish that reunification is not viable on one of these bases, and the child must be declared dependent by a juvenile court. Assessing and pursuing this option involves US immigration authorities and US courts, which are not equipped to process such requests on the spot.
Because these options are available, the US government cannot deport everyone coming to the border illegally without process. Protocols are in place to review and assess options such as these before deciding whether or not to deport a person or a family. Following those protocols take time, and require that the individuals coming to the border be housed and fed while the process runs. The effect is an overwhelming of resources for detention and caring for these individuals. The immigration courts have also felt the effect, shifting significant resources away from pending case in the deportation process to focus those limited resources on handling the load of people seeking review of their immigration options. This has added to an already overloaded Immigration Court system that has seen backlogs grow significantly since the surge.