With Congress and the president on vacation and the situation in Iraq and Syria boiling over, the spotlight has shifted away from the humanitarian crisis along the Southwest border – and the plight of the tens of thousands of children from Central America who have illegally entered this country.
More than 57,000 Central American children have arrived illegally in the United States so far this fiscal year, or double the number who made it to the U.S. southern border in fiscal 2013. The number of families arriving at the border, consisting mostly of mothers with infants and toddlers, has increased in similar fashion.
As Congress and the Obama administration dickered this summer over what should be done to detain, process and in many cases deport this wave of humanity, the public was treated to horrifying reports and images of toddlers and young people being crammed into concrete jails and warehouses, sleeping on the floor as they awaited processing and transfer to other facilities.
While there are signs that the worst of the warehousing and mistreatment of these young people has abated, there are still thousands who are languishing in Texas and Arizona jails and facilities awaiting the next step in their uncertain journey.
“I think they [federal authorities] have put some processes in place and have probably begun to more efficiently move [the children] and move them out, quite frankly,” Wendy Feliz, communications director for the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group tracking the crisis along the border, said on Tuesday. “We’re hearing that [the influx of young immigrants] is slowing down, so I’m not sure how much warehousing of people there is at this point.”
Many of these illegal immigrants who poured into the U.S. said they were fleeing gang violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, or were hoping to be reunited with parents or other family members already living in this country.
Last month, National Public Radio reported that some of these children complained of being subjected to “abusive and inhumane treatment in U.S. Border Patrol stations in South Texas,” including frigid holding rooms known as “the ice box,” sleep deprivation, inadequate food and water and denial of medical attention.
Saul Martinez, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, testified at a Congressional Progressive Caucus hearing in Washington last month that after he was caught crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, he was held with about 200 other children in an ice box for six days, according to an Arizona Republic report. Conditions were wretched and there was only one toilet for the 200 children.
A 12-year-old girl from Honduras testified at the same hearing that she had been better treated by the human smugglers who brought her to this country than by the U.S. immigration authorities, according to the report.
Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, did not dispute that some of the immigrant children had legitimate complaints about conditions in the holding cells, but said border agency officers had been overwhelmed by the influx of the youthful illegal immigrants.
“When I looked at all the complaints, sleeping on a concrete floor is not anything any of us wanted to see, and to see a room the size of this office with maybe 40 or 50 kids lying on the floor covered in a blanket, waiting two and three and four days to be actually moved to a better facility, I know that we were overwhelmed,” he told NPR in late July.
By law, Central American children and their parents are entitled to a court hearing to appeal for asylum or special immigration status before being deported. Border Patrol agents are in charge of screening immigrant children and holding them for up to 72 hours before they must be transferred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services – although in many cases the children have been held much longer.
Just when conditions appeared to reach intolerable levels, the administration disclosed early this month that the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended crossing the border declined in July by nearly half the number during the previous two months, The Washington Post reported.
New Border Patrol figures showed that 5,508 children were taken into federal custody in July, which was down from more than 10,000 in both May and June, according to The Post. The number of adults crossing into this country illegally with their children also declined sharply, from 16,330 in June to 7,410 in July, according to the report.
At the same time, the spectacle of hordes of Central American children being packed like sardines in jails and holding cells in Texas and Arizona border towns began to abate, as many of the children and their parents taken into custody were processed and moved into a government pipeline spanning the country.
So what precisely are the conditions today along the border? The Dallas Morning News recently published a comprehensive report on the border crisis that sheds considerable light on the status of the children and current conditions. Among the central findings:
- Since the start of the fiscal year last October, border authorities have transferred 51,000 unaccompanied minors to the custody of the Department of Human Services. The department has contracted with welfare agencies and private non-profits at 94 facilities throughout the U.S. to provide the children with housing and social services.
- Of those 51,000, 88 percent have been placed with members of their family. More than half of these children are living with a parent while their immigration status is under review.
- The number of children still being held in cramped conditions in jail cells throughout the Rio Grande Valley is comparatively low. The newspaper was told by border patrol officials that a total of about 2,300 unaccompanied children were still being held in jail-like facilities.
The government recently stepped up efforts to open detention centers for hundreds of migrant families awaiting deportation proceedings, including a 700-bed facility in Artesia, N.M. Feliz complained that federal officials are targeting families at Artesia for a fast-track review and deportation.
That’s because while unaccompanied children must be granted a full and often time-consuming review and placement by HHS, parents with their children can be processed in short order and sent back to their home countries. Moreover, most of those families have no legal representation in the proceedings.
“It’s a prime example of a very knee-jerk reaction to getting people in and out really quickly, so I think a lot of eyes are on Artesia right now,” Feliz said.
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