Texas Must Take Urgent Action on Migrant Children Crisis

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and I authored the following op-ed today in The Houston Chronicle:

It is no secret that we come from different political parties and differ on many issues. But we are Texans and we know that with the responsibility of public office comes the duty to take action when others will not - to find solutions for the problems facing our state.

Texas stands at the epicenter of a growing humanitarian crisis. Over the past few years, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have made a treacherous journey to reach the United States. Thousands have crossed the border into Texas. This year, that number has skyrocketed, far outpacing past years and on a current trajectory that will result in as many as 90,000 children crossing our southern border in 2014 alone. In future years, it's predicted that figure will more than double.

More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have been detained at our southern border this year. A majority of these children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Under current law, when these minors are detained, they must be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for shelter while they await a hearing before a federal judge. For those children detained from bordering nations, Mexico or Canada, the process is different. Border Patrol officers can determine whether the minors are eligible to stay in the country and give these children the choice to be safely transferred to officials from their home countries.

HHS does not have the capacity to shelter 50,000 migrant children. As a result, children are being kept at Border Patrol detention facilities that can accommodate several hundred individuals and are currently holding at least double their capacity. We, unlike President Barack Obama, have seen these facilities first-hand in recent weeks. The conditions are unacceptable. Babies in diapers are sleeping on cement floors. Cells with just one toilet, meant to hold only a few individuals, are holding dozens of children at a time.

In addition to overcrowded detention space, there is an overburdened judicial system. As it stands, minors in HHS custody released to family members, guardians or sponsors in the U.S. are given a notice to appear before a federal judge for their immigration hearing. On average, these children will not be called before a judge for more than a year, leaving plenty of time to disappear and never return for a court date. But the law as written leaves few other options.

We propose a clear and common-sense change to the law to address the immediate crisis. Bipartisan legislation we have introduced would amend the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. The law had good intentions, many of which should be preserved, but it must be improved so that thousands of children are deterred from making a life-threatening journey to the U.S. Our changes to the law maintain all the safeguards built in to the 2008 law to protect against human trafficking, to protect children who have a credible fear of returning to their country, and to facilitate a timely return for those children who can make an independent decision to withdraw their application and return to their country.

Our legislation would treat all unaccompanied minors the same and ensure due process under the law. A majority of the unaccompanied children would be reunited with their families in their home countries. Those who choose it will receive a fair and timely hearing. In cases where children qualify for relief from removal under our immigration laws, they would be safely placed with federally screened sponsors while additional hearings are scheduled.

This would alleviate overcrowded Border Patrol facilities and local entities that have been disproportionately affected. Most important, it would send a message to individuals in Central America that the dangerous journey to the United States at the hands of ruthless smugglers and cartel operatives is not worth it. Central American families would hear loudly and clearly that not only will the journey place their children at risk of abuse, rape and even death, but that they will by and large not be permitted to stay in the United States once they arrive.

Tackling this crisis is a significant challenge that will require the president's leadership. But in the meantime, as children sleep in crowded cells and Texas communities are reeling from the impact, we need urgent action. Our legislation is a common-sense solution that will take immediate steps to stem the tide of this growing crisis.


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