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The U.S. Immigration System Is Only Getting Worse

Too many migrant children entering the country are effectively doomed to bureaucratic limbo.

By Jared Keller


A boy watches a movie at a U.S. Border Patrol detention facility in McAllen, Texas. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The biggest tragedy of America’s immigration apparatus has nothing to do with national security.

While a rise in refugees worldwide to an all-time high of 21.3 million as a result of the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan (nearly half of whom are children, according to a new report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) has for some spurred terror-laden anxieties, America’s real immigration crisis centers on the treatment of those who enter the country.

According to a new report from humanitarian non-profit Child Trends, some 127,000 migrant children will seek refuge in the United States in 2016. Of those children, only 29 percent will be granted refugee or asylee status, mostly those from war-torn nations. But those other 71 percent of migrant children — 90,000 young people, mostly fleeing strife in Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — will land right in the middle of a humanitarian disaster. While the rise in border apprehensions and deportations (spearheaded by the Obama administration) over the last several years may suggest to immigration hardliners that U.S. policy is working, the Child Trends report reveals that too many migrant children entering the country are effectively doomed to bureaucratic limbo, resigned to the seemingly endless institutions of border control and, in turn, sentenced to a lifetime of personal dysfunction and trauma.

Children are either thrown into a short-term border control holding facility or sent to U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter. In the case of the former, these children are often placed in foster care or released to sponsors, few of whom are appropriately vetted. Home studies of sponsors are only conducted in fewer than 5 percent of cases, per Child Trends, and a 2016 report by the Department of Health & Human Services revealed “allegations of sexual misconduct by contract staff in [ORR] contracted facilities, extortion scams of ORR sponsor families, and the potential for grant fraud.”

The detention centers are another story entirely. About 21 percent of Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees are housed in “contract” (read: private) prisons, according to a report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general. The recent report on contract prisons revealed that they “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable institutions,” from “extensive property damage, bodily injury, and the death of a Correctional Officer.”

“It really is a limbo that’s only going to exacerbate that experience of trauma.”

At least the Department of Justice has been gradually coming around to this issue, ordering the surprise inspections of both Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection facilities back in March, and announcing in August that it would “evaluate” the use of private detention facilities for border control along with its general sunsetting of private contracts for the federal prison system.

“There are the conditions of these detention centers that are closer to prison facilities than anything humane in caring of children,” says DavidMurphy, the lead author of the report and a senior researcher at Child Trends. “These children made a difficult journey to the U.S., and then you throw them in a detention center — that’s inherently traumatizing. Despite calls for them to be closed, they continue to operate.”

But just as bad as the conditions of many of these detention centers is the uncertainty surrounding these individuals’ immigration status — they are, in effect, living in legal limbo. This is now a highly visible problem, thanks, in part, to the hunger strike of 22 migrant women currently held at a Pennsylvania immigration center. In response to the women’s initial strike in August, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson claimed the Department of Homeland Security has been detaining families “for an average of no more than 20 days,” perMother Jones.

While undocumented migrant children must be referred to an immigration court within three weeks of their apprehension at the border, Child Trends reveals that the average filing for a hearing day is nearly 700 days, or almost two years, after. That’s a significant increase from the 100-day waiting period the Office of Inspector General uncovered back in 2012, itself far beyond the department’s 60-day “timeliness” limit.

It’s unlikely immigration courts will suddenly adapt to handle the surge in child migrants. Consider that a 2016 examination of immigration cases and appeals found performance reports “are incomplete and overstate the actual accomplishments of these courts”; of 1,785 closed cases in 2012, 484 were actually “administrative events” effectively double-counting to mask the strain on the system. It’s doubtful these courts have adapted to the explosion of cases since 2011, from around 12,000 in 2012 to 62,456 in 2014, per data from the Migration Policy Institute. Johnson said 20 days, but migrants like those in Pennsylvania find themselves languishing for months.

And for kids, that can be especially detrimental. According to a report from the Center for Migration Studies, separation from parents by immigration services can weigh very heavily on unaccompanied children. And the toxic stress of prolonged isolation, instability, and uncertainty have biological consequences not unlike the daily experience of grinding poverty and racism for the developing brains of young people. “It really is a limbo that’s only going to exacerbate that experience of trauma,” Murphy says. “It’s the anxiety of not knowing whether you’ll be separated from your parents, whether you’ll be sent back to the horrific conditions you fled.”

Despite all this, don’t expect a solution to magically appear overnight. While President Barack Obama has declared the swell of unaccompanied minors at the southern border to be an “urgent humanitarian situation,” his call for $3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress was eventually blocked by Senate Republicans. And while a federal judge gave the Obama administration a hard deadline to shift its detention rules to ensure the speedy release of migrant children, those 22 women in Pennsylvania have remained in limbo for months.

“Children have a common denominator regardless of their legal status: the experience of trauma,” Murphy says. “In relationship to the numbers worldwide, we’re talking about a very small proportion of migrant children facing these circumstances in the U.S. But for our country to step up and change our policy should set an example as to how we treat the most vulnerable children under vulnerable circumstances.”