Migrant children, in limbo, settle across Texas, U.S.

Migrant children, in limbo, settle across Texas, U.S.


Since last October, more than 66,000 children from Central America have illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without parents — a steady flow that has overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and federal social workers who, following the law, dispersed the children to cities across the nation.

Their arrival overflowed short-term detention facilities this summer, triggered humanitarian relief efforts and prompted heightened efforts by U.S. and Mexican officials to dissuade migrants from attempting the dangerous journey north. The border crisis further exposed divisions on either side of the immigration debate, as President Barack Obama called for expedited deportations and Gov. Rick Perry, saying federal efforts weren’t adequate, deployed National Guard troops and additional Department of Public Safety troopers to patrol the border.

But as children continue to cross the border — now at a slower pace than earlier in the summer — and settle into cities across the country, a humanitarian crisis is becoming a bureaucratic one.

“They were getting those kids out as quickly as they possibly could,” said Meghan Johnson, an attorney with the ProBAR Children’s Project, which provides legal services for migrant children facing deportation proceedings.

Many of the children are staying in Texas, with more than 350 in Travis County living with sponsors, typically family members, the third-highest number among Texas counties.

Johnson and her team based in the Rio Grande Valley have for years responded to a steady flow of unaccompanied minors picked up by border agents. Like border officials, they had a system that worked: Let the children settle at a short-term facility, then teach them their legal rights and implore them to show at court in their destination cities.

But then the border apprehensions spiked this year, causing a bottleneck in the system. With thousands of children stuck in border lockups, federal officials scrambled to open more long-term facilities or expand existing ones. They needed to shuffle more children through, faster.

An unintended consequence, Johnson said, is children might not have enough time with attorneys — which could lead to some failing to appear in court. Others might not fully appreciate how difficult it is to win an asylum case in immigration court.

Most of the children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where violence and extreme poverty are driving people out. Unlike children from Mexico, children from noncontiguous countries are by law remanded to the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some members of Congress have said they plan to repeal that proviso in the otherwise popular Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Immigration attorneys also are concerned that Obama’s efforts to expedite removal proceedings threaten to violate the right of children to make a case for refugee status — a concern heightened by the dearth of attorneys willing to take on a child’s case for free.

Nearly half of minors in deportation proceedings appear without an attorney, according to a study of 100,000 cases over the past decade by Syracuse University researchers. The same study found that about half of the children represented by a lawyer weren’t deported, while only 1 in 10 children facing immigration court alone were allowed to stay in the U.S.

How smoothly the recent wave of migrants’ cases will flow into immigration courts is yet unclear, but both immigration attorneys and judges have expressed skepticism that simply speeding up the court docket would work.

“Because we have been left to the mercy of the political winds, which constantly buffet immigration issues, we have been resource-starved for decades,” Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said in a news conference.

Migrant children in Texas

However this tangle plays out, it will play out in Texas.

About 5,300 of the unaccompanied child migrants, or 8 percent, have been placed with family or other sponsors in Texas, which is now home to more of the unaccompanied migrant children than any other state, according to an analysis of data from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Nearly 2,900 sponsored children are living in Harris County, which accounts for more than half of Texas’ migrant children population and is now home to more migrant children than any other county in the nation. There are 851 migrant children living with sponsors in Dallas County, the second-highest in the state. The 354 migrant children living with sponsors in Travis County is more than double the number in Bexar County.

But those numbers don’t account for the thousands of children who remain in federal facilities and shelters throughout the country. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which effectively has custody over the children, wouldn’t say how many children remain in facilities in Texas, but a spokesman said that about 2,500 are in such care nationwide.

Historically, about 85 percent of unaccompanied children are reunified with sponsors somewhere in the U.S. in about 35 days, according to the agency.

Texas licensing records show that, as federal workers hurried to place children in beds this summer, state officials relaxed some rules to allow more than a dozen facilities to expand their capacity. At the height of the influx, records indicate state regulators allowed agencies to add about 800 beds. Currently, about 3,000 beds are available to children in Texas. The average stay in such a facility is less than a month, officials said.

Not a security risk

Federal figures indicate the flow of migrants is waning. The politics, though, haven’t abated.

The activation of 1,000 National Guard troops by Perry, who is considering a presidential run, recently was criticized by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Some South Texas police agencies have called the deployment unnecessary, while business groups and economists have said the military presence is hurting the local economy.

Perry, for his part, has said that the state’s border enforcement initiatives will help secure the border from criminals, even terrorists, while the Border Patrol deals with the problem of unaccompanied children.

The combined cost of the National Guard and DPS operation is costing Texas taxpayers as much as $18 million a month.

Yet the national security risk posed by the migration of mostly women and children remains unclear.

“From our standpoint, from the security standpoint, the children that are coming across are not a security risk,” DPS Director Steve McCraw told a House committee this month. “They may be an indirect risk.”

Early fears that the travelers could bring illness with them have proved unwarranted, though three cases of H1N1, or swine, flu and multiple cases of chicken pox were documented.

“Our schools are safe as far as disease goes,” Dave Gruber, a regional director for the Department of State Health Services, told that committee.


By J. David McSwane – American-Statesman Staff

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