WASHINGTON – The Obama administration toughened its border policies Friday, hoping to stem a surge of women and children into the United States by sending a stronger message that unauthorized migrants will be turned away.
The steps, aimed at those entering from Mexico, include adding more immigration judges to process a backlog of asylum claims and to more quickly deport adults whose cases are rejected. New detention facilities are also being opened for families awaiting hearings and ankle monitoring bracelets will be used to keep tabs on them, officials said.
The moves mark recognition by the administration that the unexpected influx of tens of thousands of immigrant children has become a serious humanitarian and political crisis. So far this year, 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended along the Mexican border – a much higher proportion than normal.
The surge has become an unexpected flashpoint in Washington’s immigration debate, making it even less likely that House Republicans will support comprehensive reform legislation this year.
Administration officials had previously said that the main cause of the influx was an escalation of gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But the new measures Friday represented an acknowledgment that there is a widespread perception in Central America that women and children who enter the United States illegally would be permitted to stay.
Vice President Joe Biden discussed the crisis during a stop in Guatemala on Friday. President Barack Obama also phoned Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday to emphasize that migrants will not be eligible for legal status or citizenship.
Amid reports of children crammed into border patrol stations, Republicans have faulted the administration’s border policies for being weak and contributing to rumors of sanctuary in the United States. The situation presents a serious challenge for Obama as he considers whether to use executive power to expand the number of undocumented immigrants who can stay in the country without penalty.
In addition to tougher enforcement efforts, the administration announced Friday that it would invest $9.6 million to help Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras repatriate those sent home from the United States, along with new aid to help improve security in those countries.
While the administration took steps to expedite the removal of adults who cross the border illegally, officials said they are unable to follow similar procedures for the larger pool of children who are showing up at the border without their parents. Federal law requires the children to be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours and released to family members or other guardians with orders to appear at an immigration hearing later.
But immigration experts said many youth do not show up for their hearings, intent on remaining in the country illegally. Administration officials declined to release figures on how many young migrants have appeared before immigration judges.
GOP lawmakers quickly denounced the administration’s announcement Friday, saying the measures still were not strong enough to deter the spike in migrants from Central America.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the White House to send National Guard troops to the Texas border. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called the administration’s moves smoke and mirrors because women and children can game the system.
Many thousands have already been released into the interior of the United States, Goodlatte said in a statement. What does President Obama plan to do with those who have already been released from custody?
Democrats and liberal groups, meanwhile, denounced the new measures as inhumane. A spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he does not support placing women and children in detention facilities as they await appearances before immigration judges.
Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that many families have fled crime and violence in Central America, and have suffered trauma during their treacherous journeys to the U.S. in search of legal protection. Human rights require that detention be the last resort, not the first.