One year later, Obama administration faces criticism over child migrant policies

Critics are on both sides of the aisle

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Between a brutal murder in San Francisco and Donald Trump's presidential campaign, immigrants have been much in the news lately. But a particular group of migrants who received heavy media coverage last year has mostly slipped off the national radar.

Last year, more than 50,000 children, many fleeing drug violence in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, crossed into the country. They represented the largest influx of asylum seekers on U.S. soil since the 1980 Mariel boatlift out of Cuba.

These child migrants received considerable attention at first, with President Obama describing the situation as a humanitarian crisis, while protesters in California and Arizona drew headlines last July by seeking to block buses of children who would be housed in their communities.

The number of child migrants has come down by more than half since last year. But even that reduced number outpaces historic norms. Meanwhile, the Obama administration finds itself under criticism for its handling of the situation from both the left and right.

Under the terms of a 2008 law meant to combat child trafficking, children from countries other than Canada or Mexico must be given a court hearing before being deported, or allowed to stay. Human rights activists say that the administration has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of this law.

According to a Syracuse University study, fewer than a third of unaccompanied child migrants last year had legal representation. Activists complain that some children who are too young for school are expected to navigate legal proceedings without counsel. "Lack of representation for unaccompanied children remains a staggering problem," Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, said in a recent conference call with reporters.

In a separate development, a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, which audits federal programs, estimated that 93 percent of unaccompanied children from Mexico under the age of 14 had been deported over the past five years by Customs and Border Protection "without documenting the basis for decisions."

Mexican children are not afforded the same legal protections as Central Americans. But activists complain that Central American mothers and children have been held, sometimes for months, at detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.

Prior to last year's surge, child migrants were generally allowed to live with relatives or travel freely on bond if they had demonstrated "credible fear" of persecution back home. Only a few dozen were detained at any given time. "We are troubled by the use of detention to dissuade other people from coming," says Leslie E. Vélez, senior protection officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "This is about people feeling mass violence."

Over the past few days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released some 200 Central Americans, mostly mothers and children, from detention centers. About 2,000 individuals remained housed in them, but the agency said in a statement that "going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children, absent a threat to public safety or national security, if they have received a positive finding for credible or reasonable fear."

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the administration is working to improve conditions at detention centers and increase access to legal representation, while dropping the idea of using detention as a "general deterrence" measure. "In short, once a member of a family has established a credible fear or reasonable fear of persecution or torture, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued," Johnson said.

That was not music to the ears of conservative critics of the administration. All along, they have blamed lax Obama immigration policies for giving a "green light" to migrants. "Claiming asylum is a new way to game the system," says Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration limits.

The families who are detained represent only a "tiny fraction" of the migrants from Central America, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower rates of immigration. "Detention is the only way to get them to show up for their hearing," he says.

Although both the administration and the U.N. have found that a majority of the child migrants from Central America are legitimate asylum seekers, Krikorian said many are simply seeking what amounts to a front door way to sneak into the country. "The majority of them aren't even showing up for their hearings," he says. "They know that this is a way to get into the United States."

If there's one thing conservatives and human rights activists can agree on it is that there's likely to be little action to address the matter on Capitol Hill. Whether it's an attempt to rewrite the 2008 law to end or adjust the automatic right to a hearing, or the administration's request for more than $100 million for courts and attorneys, differences between the parties over the migrant question and its roots could thwart substantive dealmaking.

In the meantime, Mexico and the "northern triangle" countries of Central America have stepped up their efforts to block migrants from heading north.

"Mexico's more muscular response might dissuade more people from coming -- that's the administration's hope," Krikorian says. "The flow will continue, but it's entirely possible it will continue at a low enough level that the administration will figure it's not a political problem for them."

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