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Immigration Part I: Asylum Seekers and Detained Children

A Honduran mother removes her 2-year-old daughter’s shoelaces, as required by US Border Patrol agents, after being detained near the US-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. PHOTO: John Moore/Getty

Immigration is a complicated issue. Before one begins such a discussion, it’s important to define one’s terms and have a basic understanding of the laws and processes in place. If my understanding is incorrect, please let me know. I can only provide that which I’ve surmised from reports and immigration websites that explain the way it’s supposed to work. I’m not an immigration lawyer or legal expert and have never personally been through the U.S. immigration process.

Typically, United States grants asylum to persons from North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, the Middle East, Africa and the North Triangle of Central America, meaning the gang-ravaged poverty-stricken areas of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. With rare exception, people from Mexico and Canada are immediately deported.

Total Asylum Grants by Country of Nationality, Fiscal Year 2016 [*Includes the Palestinian Territory and countries with less than 10 individuals granted asylum in FY 2016.] SOURCE: American Immigration Council
It’s my understanding that when the United States announces it’s granting asylum to people from a certain country, those people don’t have to scale walls, borough through tunnels or hire a “coyote” (coyotaje) to get into the country. They simply present themselves to an agent at an U.S. Port of Entry or checkpoint and declare they’re seeking asylum.

From there, they are taken to a nearby processing center, where they are interviewed, documented and given a future hearing date. This process may take a few days in setting similar to a county jail. Families are kept together.

With a hearing date and refugee documents in hand, they are released into the United States on their own recognizance. They are told they are not allowed to work, but they are given a list of refugee resources for state and federal assistance. If they don’t show up for their court date, they forfeit their asylum claim. The asylum process can take one to four years.

Sometimes persons who are legitimately seeking asylum from a port of entry are temporarily detained for longer periods. If, for example, a person has a criminal record, their story doesn’t seem credible, they have no documentation, or something about their situation appears suspicious (ei. trafficking, terrorism, gang affiliation), they may be detained for 90 days, then either released with a hearing date or deported.

If a refugee with a child in tow is detained (jailed) for some reason, that child may be housed if no non-detained family member is available to claim and care for them. Law in the U.S. dictates that adults will not be incarcerated with children. This is why families are separated.

Children with incarcerated parents and no guardians are placed in the care of the government, whether they’re Americans or migrants. Migrant children are federally fostered, not legally “detained.” However, in some cases with migrants, foster care may be provided at a youth detention facility due to overcrowding. The preferred situation is a foster home or a child outreach organization (churches/youth programs), but availability varies with demand. Children ages 12 and under receive different care from teenagers, and infants stay with their mother. Housing and detention is an important distinction.

A child in the U.S. is anyone who is (or claims to be) age 17 and under. Of course, young adults coming into the U.S. sometimes claim they are 17 or under in order to thwart migration laws that pertain to adults. For example, illegally crossing the border with an adult is not a crime for a child.

Children are only legally “detained” (jailed) in a youth detention facility if they are caught committing a crime or are suspected of breaking the law. Examples include smuggling of weapons or drugs, gang affiliation, criminal record, or are strongly suspected of being an adult. If a child is found guilty of committing a crime or has a criminal record, they are typically deported, not incarcerated in the U.S.

Whether housed or detained, the children are given a medical examination and interviewed. An assessment is made to determine whether the child is being exploited or has serious medical issues, including drug addiction, sexual abuse and trauma. A housed child that exhibits these issues may be referred to public or private organizations that protect, treat and care for them.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tracks detained adults and their children and attempts to reunite them upon the parent’s release. HHS calls and sends letters letting the parent know when and where they can pick up their child. Reportedly, parents don’t always come and pick up their kids, perhaps fearing it’s a trap to detain and deport them. Perhaps the “parent” is really a trafficker who fears arrest. Or perhaps the parent believes their child will have a better life under the care of the U.S. government.

Whatever the case may be, it is these “unclaimed” children that were reported as “1,500 missing” by the media a couple weeks ago thanks to more misleading press releases coming from the Democratic operatives.

From October 2017 through December 2017, HHS received 7,635 unaccompanied children, most of whom “were fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” according to the agency.

Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, told a Senate subcommittee in April that “of the 7,635 children, 6,075 remained where they were placed [reunited with family in U.S. or placed in foster care], 52 had moved, 28 had run away and five were deported. That left 1,475 migrant children. Just because their parents or guardians did not return HHS’s phone calls after 30 days does not mean the children are missing,” The Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, DHS has reported a 315% increase in fake families coming over the border. Of the approximate 12,000 child “migrants” picked up by border and customs patrol so far in 2018, 10,000 were unaccompanied by a legal guardian.

Are these unaccompanied children being brought into the U.S. illegally, or are they appearing at ports of entry to seek asylum? It’s unclear, and yet it’s a critical question. The same question needs to be asked of adult migrants. Going through a U.S. Port of Entry suggests a legitimate need for refugee status and a willingness to abide by U.S. law. All other forms of entry suggest something more nefarious.

During the last several presidential administrations, agents were instructed to practice “catch and release,” meaning that if the person had a child and/or no criminal record, they wouldn’t be detained or deported. The argument was that the child is not a criminal and should not be deported and, even though their parent broke the law by entering the country illegally, the child shouldn’t be separated from their parent — or at least not both parents. Therefore, the parent is “caught and released.” This policy allowed children to be used like a passport and encouraged their exploitation.

However, once those children of illegal migrants became of adult age, they, too, are suddenly classified as illegal migrants and the whole family is eligible for deportation. Deporting young adults who were raised and educated in America since the 1990s seemed counter intuitive to lawmakers, so Congress passed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (aka DREAMers Act/DACA) to grant them legal status.

Not anymore. Now, an adult who gets caught coming over the border or who is in the country illegally will be automatically detained under the Trump administration — unless they claim they are refugees. Yes, even after crossing illegally, a “refugee” can claim asylum. Of course, this motivates every Mexican to claim they are from Central America. Once here, the child is only placed in housing (not detention) and/or deported if there is nobody to act as guardian to the child in the U.S.

So in terms of migration, adult migrants can no longer use children like passports. However, children are still treated like non-regulated global citizens, allowed to pass in and out of the U.S. largely unaccompanied, unimpeded nor prosecuted. This makes children desirable drug mules for the Central American cartels and vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers. These will be topics for Part II on immigration.

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