The White House Wants to Speed Up the Deportation of Children

Most of the reporting I’ve seen on the White House DACA proposal sounds a lot like this summary from Dara Lind.

…the administration is willing to allow 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants who came to the country as children to become legal residents and ultimately apply for US citizenship — including the 690,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as others who would have been eligible for DACA but did not apply — in exchange for a $25 billion fund for its wall on the US/Mexico border; reallocating slots currently given to immigrants via the diversity visa lottery on the basis of “merit”; and preventing people from sponsoring their parents, adult children, or siblings to immigrate to the US.

But she goes on to catch an important piece that is missing from that summary.

Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, as well as influential Republicans like Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), have stressed that border security also needs to include statutory changes that would make it harder for people to pursue asylum cases after entering the US and reduce special protections for families and unaccompanied children crossing the border. Because children and families from Central America make up an increasing share of border apprehensions, they see deterring those immigrants as an important security measure.

The talking points distributed by the White House about its plan, and obtained by Axios, hint that the framework would make changes in this regard. It mentions “same treatment of illegal aliens, regardless of country of origin” — an allusion to changing the law that prevents Border Patrol agents from summarily deporting unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico. And it refers to changing “the ‘catch and release’ policy through which immigrants are released while awaiting a hearing” — which would make it harder for asylum seekers to get a lawyer while their cases are pending.

The Axios reference to changing the “catch and release” policy was presented as an example of a broader statement about “closing loopholes in the system that make it almost impossible to deport illegal immigrants.” If that was merely an example, then it is important to clarify what else the White House has in mind, because these are the items on the list of demands that are an attempt to implement the administration’s “deport ’em all” strategy.

Lind is right to zero in on child migrants and asylum seekers. In the list of demands issued from the White House back in October, both groups received particular focus. Here is what that document said about the “loopholes” for unaccompanied child migrants:

Loopholes in current law prevent “Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UACs) that arrive in the country illegally from being removed. Rather than being deported, they are instead sheltered by the Department of Health and Human Services at taxpayer expense, and subsequently released to the custody of a parent or family member— who often lack lawful status in the United States themselves.

There are at least two laws that create these so-called “loopholes” that prevent DHS from detaining and/or immediately deporting child migrants. One is the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) that I wrote about recently. It requires that child migrants be released to family members or placed in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their age and special needs, rather than held in detention facilities. The other is the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which includes similar protections for child migrants, with different requirements for children from Mexico and Canada.

Children from non-contiguous countries are:

* Referred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours for screening and placement in the least restrictive setting possible;
* Placed in removal proceedings;
* Placed in the care of a family member, shelter, or foster home pending removal hearing; and
* Provided access to counsel, to the greatest extent practicable, to represent them in legal proceedings or matters and protect them from mistreatment, exploitation, and trafficking.

Children from contiguous countries [Mexico and Canada] must be screened within 48 hours of apprehension to determine:

* Whether the child has been trafficked or is susceptible to trafficking upon return to their home country
* Whether the child has a credible fear of returning to their home country
* Whether the child is able to make an independent decision to withdraw an application for admission into the United States, also known as voluntary departure.

These are the protections that are in place for child migrants, but have been identified by this administration as “loopholes” that need to be amended/removed.

Dreamers aren’t simply being held hostage in order to force changes to this country’s legal immigration system and get money for Trump’s border wall. The ransom note from this White House also includes an attempt to deny humane protections for children in order to facilitate their immediate deportation.

During the 2016 election, Donald Trump embraced a “deport ’em all” strategy for undocumented immigrants. But then he reversed himself and promised repeatedly to focus his administration’s deportation efforts on criminals. From everything we’ve seen, it is clear that the original statement is actually driving this administration’s policy, with an initial focus on deporting children.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .