Our nation is suffering a crisis of conscience. We see photos of children lost and bewildered, seeking refuge in our country. They are lined up in rows, on the floor, covered by an aluminum blanket, waiting for processing. They have suffered unspeakable abuse, persecution, and agonizing journeys to make it here. Churches, families and local leaders have stepped forward with the spirit of welcome. Many of our nation’s leaders have done the same, giving voice to the plight of those who are gravely in need of aid.
But our president has not offered leadership, or much compassion. Instead he has sent a mixed signal at best: America, he says, wants to protect vulnerable children but wants to deter them from coming by speeding up deportations. Since late June, he has stated clearly that he wants more authority to deport children quickly.
Our laws — including a 2008 bipartisan anti-trafficking law — require us to treat these children carefully. Instead of letting a Border Patrol agent determine whether a child could be eligible for asylum or other status, we have a process that strives to keep them in safe custody, then screens them for eligibility for legal protections, and finally brings them before an immigration judge for a reasoned and balanced decision. I find it incomprehensible and morally indefensible that the administration has signaled to Congress to change that law. True they have not specified exactly how they want to do it. But its signal sends the dangerous message that it wants to weaken protections for these children at their time of greatest need.
The president is right that there needs to be more funding for immigration courts and judges. For years Congress has underfunded the courts while heaping funding on the Department of Homeland Security for enforcement. No one in Congress should be complaining that the courts are slow and backlogged. Now is the time to increase the number of judges available to hear cases. The processing of these children’s cases would be greatly improved simply by reducing the time they are stuck waiting for their cases to come before an immigration judge.
The government should also guarantee that these vulnerable children be represented by counsel, so they have a fair chance against the DHS attorney who will be arguing to throw them out of the country. Child victims of trafficking and persecution cannot be expected to tell their stories to law enforcement officers or to judges — let alone match up their trauma with legal theories — without an advocate to help them through the process. Moreover, legal representation and legal orientation programs have been shown to improve the efficiency for resolving cases. When someone is represented by counsel, judges are more confident that there has been a thorough screening of the person’s situation and as a result can proceed to a final decision.
Finally, children and families should not, except in very rare circumstances, be formally detained; instead of ramping up detention facilities, our government should invest in recruiting foster families for kids without family to go to. The president has requested nearly $600 million for 6,350 detention beds. These would be used on families, including mothers still nursing children. In 2009, the DHS learned its lesson that detention of families is unwise after abuses and poor conditions were revealed in a Texas facility. Let’s not make that mistake again and instead use far less expensive yet effective alternatives to detention.
Our nation needs this president to lead us down the right path.
Williams is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.