Six steps to prevent continued crises at the US-Mexico border

May 14, 2021

Apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a 21-year high in April, and this week Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified about the border situation before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. He reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to protecting unaccompanied children at the border and detailed steps the administration is taking to fulfill that promise.

Looking ahead, the Biden administration has an opportunity to prevent the next border crisis before it starts. To do so, it must fundamentally transform the nation’s immigration system to one that is humane, fair, and orderly and ensures protection while maintaining safety. Making these necessary and long overdue reforms will increase efficiencies that will enable the reforms to pay for themselves in the long run.

Multiple administrations have upheld a predominantly law enforcement framework at the border — rooted in policies of deterrence rather than protection — neglecting the vulnerabilities of children, jeopardizing their safety, and violating longstanding laws. As children and families continue to arrive seeking safety, it is clear that law enforcement approaches can’t stop people who are fleeing their homeland for their lives.

In its 12 years of work with thousands of unaccompanied children in the United States, my organization, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), has observed how increases in arrivals of unaccompanied children during prior administrations brought into stark relief the need for widespread reforms that would uphold children’s rights and well-being — both during and outside of influx periods — and create efficiencies within and across government agencies that would better serve all those working in and impacted by the system.

The bottleneck of children currently at the U.S.-Mexico border caused by the Trump administration’s closing of the border to children seeking safety for one year and by the limitations on Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shelter space because of COVID-19 is both a challenge and opportunity. Reopening the border to these children was the right — and far more difficult — approach. To address the crisis at the border, President Biden must devise new and creative solutions that reimagine the reception, care and release of children to ensure that we are not faced with the same challenges every few years.

The administration is working to reduce the number of children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities and transfer them more quickly into Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) licensed shelter care. This presents an opportunity to reform the ORR shelter system from reliance on large facilities to increased use of smaller shelters and family-based care settings better aligned with child welfare laws and standards.

Another longstanding weakness of the system has been a lack of services for children after their release from custody into the care of sponsors, namely legal and social services. Regardless of age, children must find and sometimes even pay for their own attorneys to help them present their case to an immigration judge and to defend against a government attorney who is arguing for the child’s deportation. At KIND, 95 percent of our completed cases in 2020 resulted in legal relief.

In addition, most of the children with whom I have worked have endured unimaginable trauma. Disclosing the harm they suffered — which is usually key to their cases — is almost impossible without the emotional support that social services can provide to help the children through a very difficult process. When a child is able to share the most hurtful parts of his or her story, the government can better understand it and determine who needs protection.

A revamped immigration system would release children from government custody into sponsor families quickly and safely, provide them with lawyers, and enable them to get mental health and other basic support. These changes would serve children’s best interests and uphold U.S. laws and values, and would also yield greater efficiencies and prove to be more adaptive in the event of future increases of children coming alone to the United States.

The good news is that there are many short- and long-term actions that will start to move the nation along a path to a reimagined immigration system. The government should:

  • Hire child welfare professionals to oversee care of children in CBP custody;
  • Co-locate Homeland Security and HHS professionals in border facilities to expedite the safe release of children to sponsors;
  • Ensure children’s appropriate care in and prompt and safe release from ORR custody by hiring more staff, establishing standards and robust oversight of emergency intake facilities, and expanding ORR’s capacity of licensed placements;
  • Provide post-release services to all children, including legal representation and social services;
  • Rescind the Title 42 policy and ensure processing of all unaccompanied children, as required by the law; and
  • Address the root causes of migration and expand pathways to protection in the region.

This is a moment of great opportunity. KIND urges the administration and Congress to seize this chance and reform our system for the good of all.

Jennifer Podkul is vice president for policy and advocacy with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which provides pro bono legal representation for refugee and migrant children. Follow on Twitter @supportKIND.