Children across the Border

Since 2014, the US immigration courts have received a great amount of immigration cases involving children who arrived in the southwestern border without adult accompanies. By law, they are defined as “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC). As cases regarding minors under age of 18 are prioritized for court hearing, review and interview, the arrival of massive unaccompanied children largely affects the regular schedule of the US legal system.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 28,579 unaccompanied children arrived in the US for the first six months of 2014 fiscal year, followed by 15,616 in 2015 and 37,753 in 2016. Although the number went down in 2015, the Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske remains concerned as it skyrockets in 2016 and is expected to rise even more in fiscal year 2017.

The surge of unaccompanied child immigrants generates severe consequences. It brought approximately 800,000 cases to the immigration courts, which could take up to five years to process and heavily interferes the schedule of legal system. “Many judges in California and New York have to postpone all the ongoing cases and are pulled to deal with those cases along with the judges in Texas,” says Susie Li, an immigration attorney in New York City. “Those temporarily suspended cases cannot be resumed until November 2019.”

In addition to the high demand of judges, these cases are in shortage of attorneys as well. The NY Pro Bono Center, an agency calling New York lawyers to serve the public, claims that an estimated 90% of the unaccompanied immigrant children without a lawyers in their cases are deported and sent back.

The influx of UAC also results in huge government expenses. Soon after the surge, President Obama requested $3.7 billion to help the border. The government first has to maintain facilities to keep massive accompanied children and have staff to take care of them. Because many children have their parents residing in the US already as undocumented immigrants, money then will be used to help the children locate their families and subsequently to hold court sessions to see if they are qualified for asylum or VISA. If they are not, the government will also have to spend money to send them back.

The vast majority of the unaccompanied children coming now are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They leave their countries because of the extreme poverty, and the increasing gang activities.

They choose to come to the US for three main reasons, immigration  experts say. First, many of them were told that if they can arrive in the US, the US would grant them proper care and humanitarian visas. Secondly, often children come here to live with their parents. Because of the long waitlist of UAC cases, many children are given temporary documentation and soon sent to their parents in US. This is done to speed up the case process, but it also unintentionally encourages more children to com to the US because they are given exactly what they want. The third reason has to do with polices. For those who believe that Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election, they want to come to the US before the election so that they can be included in massive immigration reform bills in congress. Likewise for those who believe that Donald Trump will win, they want to reach the US before the wall is built up.

Although immigration has been a big issue in the current race for president the focus on whether to build or not to build a wall is misguided, those who study the issues of UAC say.    “The wall won’t be able to stop them at all,” says Zhico Fang, a scholar in political sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Fang explained that 70% of the the children are not from Mexico giving the Mexican government little incentive to stop their illegal migration across their country on their way to the US because of the high costs to take care of these children if they were detained in Mexico “These children are coming to the US border, not to escape and hide, but to turn themselves in to the US local authorities to get help and even asylum. They would do anything to get caught – even climbing over the wall.”