An unprecedented number of unaccompanied children --mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador--are entering the U.S., through the Rio Grande Valley. More than 47,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the Southern border in 2014.
While Customs and Border Protection agents are working around the clock to process these individuals, the influx has overwhelmed the Department of Homeland Security's workforce, facilities, and resources. Overcrowding has created an unhealthy environment, which jeopardizes the safety of both detained children and federal workers.
Washington policymakers must understand that these children are risking their lives to flee violent crime and poverty. For example, the U.S. Department of States' Bureau of Diplomatic Security explains, "Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America . . . in 2012, Guatemala reported an average of 99.5 murders per week." Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and children have been particularly targeted. Over the last three years, Honduras averaged 70 children and youth murdered monthly, and the number of violent deaths continues to climb with 102 children killed last month.
By law, the Department of Homeland Security must transfer unaccompanied children to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours. HHS is charged with housing children in an appropriate facility until a parent or other family member can be located. After screening to ensure that placement with family offers a safe and healthy environment, HHS transfers children to a parent or relative. Removal proceedings are initiated against these children even before they are released to HHS, and a sponsor taking custody of a child is required to keep the Department of Homeland Security apprised of any changes in the child's location and must ensure that the child is present at their immigration court date, which often is more than a year away.
Recently, as a result of the huge numbers of unaccompanied children entering the U.S., temporary facilitates have been opened by HHS in cooperation with the Department of Defense at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme in California, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Because the influx of children continues to outpace the available beds, the government is currently investigating other locations for temporary facilities to house children.
At the direction of President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate is leading the Unified Coordination Group responsible for addressing the needs of an influx of unaccompanied children creating a humanitarian challenge. As the lead coordinating agency, FEMA is leveraging the capabilities of the federal government to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and HHS, who have the lead roles in addressing the immediate needs of unaccompanied children.
One of the issues exacerbating this problem is the overburdened immigration court system, which has more than 350,000 pending cases. There are only about 260 immigration judges nationwide to handle this huge backlog. The result is that it takes more than 500 days on average for an immigration case to be heard. More judges must be hired to efficiently adjudicate immigration cases.
Truly addressing this problem requires that more U.S. foreign policy and economic aid be directed to Mexico and Central America. For far too long, U.S. foreign policy has been predominately focused on faraway lands such as Iraq and Afghanistan while neglecting Mexico and Central America. Over the past decade, our nation has sent nearly 50 times as much foreign aid to Iraq and Afghanistan as we have to Mexico and Central American counties.
Increasingly, we are seeing the effects of this neglect. First, we saw violence and lawlessness engulf Mexican border states such as Tamaulipas. Now, we are witnessing an unprecedented flow of unaccompanied children risking their lives to enter the U.S.
Last week, I met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, and Acting Assistant Customs and Border Protection Commissioner with the Office of Field Operations John Wagner, and have discussed the growing humanitarian crisis with each of them.
This week, I will be meeting with the Ambassadors of El Salvador and Honduras as well as representatives from the Embassies of Guatemala and Mexico to discuss the ongoing humanitarian crisis and ways that we can work together to stem the tide of unaccompanied children. I will continue to work with the Department of Homeland Security to address this urgent matter and pressure the U.S. Department of State to devote more resources to Mexico and Central America.