Obama administration acts to ease immigration legal crunch at border


Facing pressure to address a widening crisis on the Southwest border, the Obama administration announced new measures Friday to detain, process and ultimately deport the growing numbers of Central American children and families who already are overwhelming most existing federal detention facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security said it was rushing additional lawyers, asylum officers and immigration judges to the Texas border, where most of the new immigrants are arriving, to process cases more quickly and reduce the large numbers of those who must be released with promises to appear at later court hearings.

“We are surging resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals and adults with children, and to handle immigration court hearings,” Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a Friday briefing.

So far this fiscal year, more than 39,000 adults have been caught crossing the Southwest border with children. An additional 52,000 unaccompanied children had been detained as of last week, and by year's end officials expect that number to have increased to as many as 90,000.

With shelters and detention centers already overcrowded, many new immigrants have been released to sponsors and family members with orders to appear for hearings later, prompting critics to say that many will elect to quietly remain within the U.S. The Department of Justice reported that 33% of immigrants released in such cases in fiscal year 2013 failed to appear for subsequent hearings, up from 24% in 2009.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday called for deploying an additional 1,000 National Guard troops on the Texas-Mexico border, along with Lakota helicopters and Predator drones. “The safety and security of our border communities is being threatened by this flood of illegal immigration, and the crisis worsens by the day,” the Republican said in a letter asking President Obama to travel to Texas to address the issue.

Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials met Friday with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in Guatemala City in the second prong of the administration's strategy, aimed at helping Central American nations alleviate the poverty and crime believed to have helped drive the exodus toward the United States. The plan calls for $40 million in U.S. aid to reduce youth involvement in gangs and promote other security improvements.

Similar programs are aimed at El Salvador and Honduras, which also are seeing expanded migrant outflows.

The number of Central American children caught crossing the border illegally last year surpassed the number from Mexico — 21,000 from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, compared with about 17,000 from Mexico.

Under U.S. law, unaccompanied Mexican children can be returned to their homeland immediately, but children from other countries must first be taken into U.S. custody. By law, Customs and Border Protection can hold them for only 72 hours, after which they must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which finds beds for them in temporary shelters.

More than 90% of the children are later placed with a relative or sponsor, according to statistics provided by Kids in Need of Defense, a legal advocacy group.

Mayorkas could not say Friday how many released detainees were showing up for subsequent immigration court proceedings.

By law, those arriving now are interviewed to see whether they are eligible for asylum. They can claim they have a “credible fear” of returning home that immigration courts must address before they can be deported, posing a challenge to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies as the numbers increase.

Mayorkas said the government would be sending more officers to hear these asylum claims and screen out those ineligible.

“Many individuals from Central America are found to be ineligible for these forms of protections and are, in fact, promptly removed,” he said.

But according to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58% of children arriving from Mexico and Central America are probably eligible for humanitarian protection under international conventions. [...]


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