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US immigration policy in the balance

20 October 20140 comments
Fences along the US-Mexico border  Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Fences along the US-Mexico border
Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

People smuggling rackets preying on some of the world’s most vulnerable people is not just an issue for Australian policy makers.

In the US, immigration reform has taken a back seat recently as the debate over what to do about women and children arriving on the Mexico-US border from Central America heats up.

More than 15,000 people arrived in May and June this year despite road blocks set up by Central American police forces to ensure that women and children leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have documentation showing that both parents approve the international travel of children.

Bus companies were also banned from selling tickets to unaccompanied children.

In June President Obama promised action before the end of the northern summer to protect some unauthorised foreigners in the US.

But in September, Obama delayed action on immigration until after the November mid-term elections, citing the influx of Central Americans for “shifting the politics” of immigration reform.

Over 63,000 unaccompanied children under 18 were apprehended on the Mexico-US border in the first 10 months of the 2014 financial year – double the 25,000 for the whole of 2013.

Most were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and most were detected in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas soon after they entered the US from Mexico.

Most were 15 to 18 years old, although a quarter were under 15 and a quarter were female.

US Border Patrol officers have reported that many of the children stopped said they had been told that the US government was giving “permisos” that allow foreign youth to live in the US and go to school.

This refers to the notices given to foreigners in deportation proceedings to appear before an immigration judge and explain why they need asylum in the US. While waiting for these hearings, children may go to school and access some social services.

Under US law, Border Patrol agents can hold minor children for up to 72 hours before they are turned over to an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that operates shelters and sends the children to parents or relatives in the US.

The annual budget in the US for unaccompanied children is almost $1 billion.

Most of the unaccompanied children are placed in deportation proceedings. However, while waiting for these proceedings to unfold over several years, over 85 per cent are released to their parents or relatives in the US.

The increased numbers have been attributed to the perception that children would be allowed to stay or that immigration reform would in some way benefit these children – a notion peddled by people smuggling syndicates.

President Obama has asked Congress to provide $3.7 billion to step up enforcement and open more shelters for families and children. Congress refused. The Democrats proposed $2.7 billion to deal with arriving Central Americans, while Republicans sought to couple $1.5 billion in additional funding with changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that would reduce the procedural rights of unaccompanied children. No funding has yet been approved.

Reporters who interviewed Central American youths in Mexico awaiting an opportunity to enter the US, related stories of poverty and criminal gang violence at home, but few mentioned the individual threats of persecution required to receive asylum.

Refugee advocates in the US have highlighted the fact that some young migrants may qualify for asylum, while groups opposed to increased intake of refugees say that many are simply joining parents or relatives in the US.

One study found that half of the young people represented by lawyers were allowed to stay in the US, while 90 per cent of those who appeared in court without lawyers were ordered to be removed from the US.

In September 2014, President Obama approved a plan to allow Central American children to apply for US refugee status so they could avoid the dangerous trek through Mexico to the US and the US anticipates resettling 70,000 refugees in 2015 with 4,000 refugee slots reserved for Latin America.

Before that Obama had promised to “fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.”

Many immigration lawyers argue that, since Congress has not provided sufficient resources to remove all of the unauthorised foreigners who are in the US, Obama only has executive authority to set enforcement priorities and thus determine which types of unauthorised foreigners should be targeted.

Employer groups have urged the Obama administration to make more immigrant visas available to foreign workers by counting only workers, and not their family members, against the 140,000 employment-related visas available each year.

If only the principal is counted against the quota, there would be more immigrant visas available for workers. Employers also want to recapture unused employment visas from earlier years, which they say would make another 200,000 immigrant visas available.

The US Department of State says there are 4.4 million foreigners waiting for immigrant visas, and that queues are longest for citizens of the Philippines, India, Vietnam and China.

Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer