Where is Robert Francis O’Rourke today? In June 2018, while running unsuccessfully for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in Texas, he was outside the gates of the Tornillo facility for unaccompanied alien children (UACs), megaphone in hand.
UACs are children who cross the U.S. border illegally and without a parent. There was nothing for O’Rourke to protest about the children’s treatment. Rather, he was protesting the Trump administration for enforcing immigration laws as passed by Congress.
Today the Biden administration is activating an identical facility at Carizzo Springs, Texas, for the same purpose. But no Beto, no American Civil Liberties Union, no parade of members of Congress who pilgrimaged to Tornillo. It’s as if child welfare is not their primary concern.
The surge of juveniles crossing the border since Joe Biden’s inauguration has overwhelmed the shelter program run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) instituted to care for them while appropriate guardians are found in the United States. There are a reported 8,000 in custody—one media report puts the number at 13,000.
Many are being warehoused at Federal Emergency Management Agency “decompression” facilities or, even less ideally, in U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations pending assignment of a shelter bed. During the Trump administration, a peak of 15,000 children were in custody, and very rarely was any child not in the care of HHS within the requisite 72 hours.
The coincidence of this surge in illegal border crossings with Biden’s inauguration is hard to dismiss as incidental. A wave of children (and adults) has crashed against the United States’ southern border, apparently sensing a new lack of resolve among immigration policy-makers to enforce existing laws.
Mexico’s agreement to interdict this flow at their southern border with Guatemala has broken down—the children mostly come not from Mexico but Central America. It is also pretty clear that prior caravans of immigrants who tested our border security were recruited and subsidized. A recent Wall Street Journal photo of people waiting in Tijuana for entry showed them all wearing T-shirts reading “Biden, please let us in!” Perhaps the shirts were spontaneously silk-screened in Guatemala.
The existence of the UAC program is a testament to the compassion of the American people. Originally designed to care for a relative trickle of children entering the country alone, it has now swelled to consume a peak of $4.5 billion a year. The Biden administration is quietly making preparations for 20,000 in custody, which means the program will likely cost in excess of $5 billion this year, and the administration will have to go to Congress to request a supplemental appropriation.
And to what end? Through the lens of “America First,” what value do the American people derive from operating the largest child welfare program in the country?
If we had an orderly immigration process, juveniles without parents would likely not be a priority category for admission. The UAC program is largely defensive: we cannot abide having unaccompanied alien children roaming American streets, where many will become homeless and victimized. Nor can we allow persons with gang affiliation to enter the country unimpeded. The UAC program is made necessary because of Congress’ failure to enact rational immigration laws.
After the UAC program places a juvenile with an appropriate guardian here in the United States, some members of Congress, mostly Democratic but some Republican, want the federal government to maintain an ongoing relationship with that family unit. This would substantially increase the cost and scope of the program, and would be a step down the path of federalizing all child welfare, currently the responsibility of the states.
Other than interdicting the flow of children entering the country illegally, solutions to this crisis are hard to come by. Many on the left advocate simply not enforcing current immigration laws. So change the laws: damage is done to the legitimacy of any society that enacts laws it does not intend to enforce.
Or we can discharge children from our care faster if we are less scrupulous about whom they are placed with. This will lead to a repeat of the Obama administration scandal of placing children with human traffickers.
Under current law, children not from contiguous countries (Canada and Mexico) cannot be expeditiously returned to their country of origin. They are entitled to a status hearing, which needlessly takes many months to occur. Some number of children in the government’s care will not be released prior to their 18th birthday, when they will be handed back to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then returned to their country of origin (or not).
These are children for whom an appropriate adult sponsor could not be identified or whose verified gang affiliations render them unsafe to release into the United States. Rather than hosting such children for years in shelter facilities, their return can and should be expedited by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, the agency that adjudicates immigration cases. Even children who want to go home are not allowed to do so without a status hearing, which is unlikely to occur before they turn 18.
Maybe the worst aspect of this program is that it encourages parents to send their children into the United States, either in the hands of coyotes or alone across the Sonoran Desert and Rio Grande. Some lionize these parents, but I think they are guilty of the reckless endangerment of their children.
The one solution to this problem that should not be tolerated is to allow the program to grow ad infinitum. If it started as an expression of our compassion, it has become a gross and cynical abuse of that virtue.