President Barack Obama will seek more than $2 billion to stem the surge of illegal immigration that has overwhelmed authorities in the Southwest, according to a published report.
Obama will also ask Congress to give immigration officials broader powers to speed up the deportation of unaccompanied minors and parents with children. The New York Times, quoting Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, reported the plan Saturday. The report said Obama also would ask for tougher penalties for smugglers who bring children across the border.
Unaccompanied minors and families – often women traveling with children – have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by the thousands, mainly in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. An estimated 52,000 unaccompanied youths have been caught along the Southwest’s border with Mexico since October, almost double last year’s total.
Most of the migrants come from Central America, driven north by unstable conditions in their home countries and by a widespread rumor that the U.S. government is giving families and unaccompanied children permission to stay in the country indefinitely.
There is no special program granting such migrants residency, but in a strange way, the rumor has become somewhat true. Immigration officials were not prepared to handle the special needs of so many families or children and have responded by holding them in detention centers or releasing them to relatives or caretakers with the understanding they will report to immigration officials later.
Temporary shelters have been opened at military facilities, such as Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, to handle the influx. On Friday, officials announced that adults with children being held in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley would be moved to California, housed in Border Patrol stations in the Imperial Valley and the San Diego area.
The children from Central America present a particular challenge to the government.
Under U.S. immigration law, Mexican or Canadian children who enter illegally and alone can be returned immediately. Children from elsewhere, however, cannot be removed immediately and must first be taken into U.S. custody.
The Department of Homeland Security can detain children who aren’t from Mexico or Canada for a maximum of 72 hours.
The children then must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in temporary shelters. That agency is required to “act in the best interest of the child,” which often means reuniting the child with a parent or relative living in the U.S. Others are placed in foster care.
Children long have crossed the border alone and illegally, but in the past most were Mexicans. According to U.S. authorities, a change occurred in fiscal year 2013 when more Central American children – nearly 21,000 from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – entered the U.S. illegally. A few more than 17,000 originated from Mexico. Through May of this federal fiscal year, 34,611 were from Central America and 11,577 from Mexico.