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EL PASO, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 01: Central American immigrants walk along the border fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. The migrants later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
EL PASO, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 01: Central American immigrants walk along the border fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. The migrants later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking…

Migration from Central America leads to unprecedented systemic strain

There has been an explosion of apprehension of family units from Central America during the Trump presidency and this is leading to great strain on the system.

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An unprecedented number of migrant families, particularly from Central America, are crossing America’s southern border, causing massive strain on the system. 

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hosted a roundtable entitled, “Unprecedented Migration at the U.S. Southern Border: Bipartisan Policy Recommendations from the Homeland Security Advisory Council.”

Ron Johnson is a Republican Senator from Wisconsin and in his opening remarks he noted the unprecedented levels of apprehensions. 

“The migration crisis at our southern border continues. In May, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 132,880 aliens as they illegally entered the United States. In June, the apprehension numbers dropped to 94,897, but even at that level, apprehensions are higher than they’ve been in over a decade. According to DHS, we are still on pace to apprehend more than one million illegal migrants at our southern border this fiscal year.”

The Committee hosted Customs and Border Protection Families and Children Care Panel (CBPPFCCP), which is a part of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC).

Johnson was one of nine senators to send President Trump a letter on July 17, 2019.

“In fiscal year 2014 when 137,000 family member units and unaccompanied alien children crossed into the United States and were apprehended at the southern border, President Obama declared a ‘humanitarian crisis.’” The letter stated. “In the first eight months of fiscal year 2019, more than 389,000 family member units and unaccompanied alien children already have entered the United States and been apprehended at the southern border, averaging over 3,000 per day in May alone.”

The HSAC, “leverages the experience, expertise, and national and global connections of the HSAC membership to provide the Secretary real-time, real-world, sensing and independent advice to support decision-making across the spectrum of homeland security operations,” according to its website

The CBPFCCP produced an interim report in May 2019 which was entered for the record, and in the report, the CBPFCCP said the crisis was the direct result of an explosion of migrant families from Central America. 

“There is a real crisis at our border. An unprecedented surge in family unit (FMU) migration from Central America is overwhelming our border agencies and our immigration system. This crisis is endangering children.” the report stated. “In too many cases, children are being used as pawns by adult migrants and criminal smuggling organizations solely to gain entry into the United States (U.S.). Because 40% of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Border Patrol’s (USBP) resources are currently absorbed in dealing with this crisis.”

One chart showed that when President Trump took over in January 2017 less than 10,000 family units were detained at the border; that had gone up to 53,077 in March 2019, the last month tracked. 

The CBPFCCP, in its May report, pinned much of the blame for the influx on lax Notice to Appear policy.

After being held for several days at inadequate and overcrowded holding areas at USBP stations, most of the adults -- provided they have a child with them and have stated that they fear returning to their country of origin -- are issued Notices to Appear (NTA) at a later time before an immigration judge somewhere in the U.S. and then dropped at a local bus station or delivered to already overwhelmed non-profit shelters. 

“The NTA, combined with long delays in the adjudication of asylum claims, means that these migrants are guaranteed several years of living (and in most cases working) in the U.S. Even if the asylum hearing and appeals ultimately go against the migrant, he or she still has the practical option of simply remaining in the U.S. illegally, where the odds of being caught and removed remain very low.”

This policy is exacerbated by a 2017 order related to a case from 1997 entitled Flores V. Department of Homeland Security. 

The Flores settlement, “requires the federal government to do two things: to place children with a close relative or family friend ‘without unnecessary delay,’ rather than keeping them in custody; and to keep immigrant children who are in custody in the ‘least restrictive conditions’ possible,” according to a 2018 Vox story

The report explained how the 2017 order exacerbated the problem. 

“The crisis is further exacerbated by a 2017 federal court order in Flores v. DHS expanding to FMUs a 20-day release requirement contained in a 1997 consent decree, originally applicable only to unaccompanied children (UAC). After being given NTAs, we estimate that 15% or less of FMU will likely be granted asylum. The current time to process an asylum claim for anyone who is not detained is over two years, not counting appeals.”

The problem is further exacerbated, said Leon Fresca, by the murky nature of the current asylum cases.

Fresca is an immigration attorney and partner with the law firm Holland and Knight; he is also a member of the CBPFCCP.

“The standard is currently being adjudicated in the courts right now,” Fresca said, “People are making claims right now that they are going to be persecuted in their home country because of domestic violence concerns or gang concerns that their country is indifferent to. It’s not clear whether those claims qualify for asylum claims.”

He noted further, “It is a fair claim that a large percentage of asylum claims, that once presented, don’t meet the asylum standard.”

AL DÍA covered another hearing recently about a backlog at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and one reason for that backlog, according to testimony at that hearing, was an increase in asylum claims. 

The CBPFCCP provided more than a dozen solutions to the crisis, including legislative solutions like clarifying Flores, creating regional processing centers to process the migrant families who are detained, and contracting for medical professionals to care for the children. 

Senator Johnson has also recently proposed, along with 8 other bipartisan senators, a solution entitled “Operation Safe Return;” which would expedite the process for meritless asylum claims. 

The panel weighed in. 

Fresca said, “I personally don’t view the expedited removal process as the ideal way to go through this.”

He also noted, however, that he has not taken a position on Operation Safe Return. 

Karen Tandy is the Chair of the CBPFCCP and she said, “Operation Safe Return - to the extent that it with in authorities and within existing resources - is something that should absolutely be pursued.”

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