The president has any number of problems at the Southwest border, but the biggest one involves “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs), that is, migrant kids entering illegally alone, without adult supervision. Joe Biden circa 2014 knew the executive branch was ill-suited to handle alien minors and his then-boss, Barack Obama, begged Congress to close the loopholes drawing them here. The current Joe Biden, however, has ignored the issue even as UAC apprehensions have hit new records and shelters fill, but if you really want to know how bad it is, the president’s biggest border nemesis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), has had to step in to help save migrant toddlers at the Rio Grande.
Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. At an August 1986 press conference, then-President Ronald Reagan explained: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.” Nothing highlights the Gipper’s wisdom better than Biden’s UAC border failings.
Up until 15 years ago, there wasn’t much of a UAC problem to discuss because few alien children crossed the Southwest border illegally, and even fewer without an adult. Despite that fact, however, immigrant advocates railed against the detention of children by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the predecessor to ICE and CBP in immigration enforcement in the interior and at the border (respectively).
When INS was abolished and DHS created in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, those advocates had the chance to act, and their House Democratic allies successfully offered an amendment to the act that transferred responsibility for the care and placement of UACs to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
There was little if any debate when this amendment was accepted, so it’s not clear why proponents thought ORR would do a better job detaining those kids than the former INS had, or as the future ICE — which was given authority to detain aliens generally — would.
In any event, the change wasn’t significant at first, because DHS didn’t encounter many UACs to transfer. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the number of UACs DHS referred to ORR in the early 2000s “averaged 6,700 annually”.
That quickly changed in late 2008, however, once congressional Democrats pushed through the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA).
Section 235 of the TVPRA divided UACs into two groups: (1) children from “contiguous” countries (Canada and Mexico); and (2) minor nationals of “non-contiguous” countries (everywhere else).
Under that provision, UACs from contiguous countries can be returned home if they have not been trafficked and don’t have a credible fear of return. Non-contiguous UACs, however, must be transferred to ORR within 72 hours and placed into formal removal proceedings (UACs aren’t amenable to expedited removal), even if they weren’t trafficked and have no fear of return. ORR is thereafter directed under TVPRA to place those children with “sponsors” in the United States, provided those children don’t pose a danger to others.
That created an opening for parents, other family members, guardians, and traffickers in the United States interested in bringing children living in those “non-contiguous” countries to do so, prompted largely by smugglers with their own agendas.
If you want proof about the deleterious effects of the TVPRA on UAC entries, here are the statistics: CRS reports that in FY 2008, the fiscal year before TVPRA took effect, CBP encountered fewer than 10,000 UACs at the Southwest border.
By FY 2009, when that bill was signed, that figure rose to around 20,000 UACs, 82 percent of them Mexican nationals, and just 17 percent from the non-contiguous “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The number of UACs entering illegally kept growing thereafter, with Border Patrol apprehending more than 68,500 of them in FY 2014. By that point, however, the proportions shifted, with just 23 percent of UACs coming from Mexico and 77 percent from the Northern Triangle.
Obama Pleads and Trump Acts — as Best He Could. Faced with a surge in “non-contiguous” UACs that year that he struggled to handle, and political backlash from the left about the care of those kids, President Obama pleaded with Congress to give DHS “additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador” — that is, to close the contiguous-country loophole in section 235 of TVPRA.
That plea was echoed by the Washington Post editorial board in August 2014, which admitted: “Inadvertently, [TVPRA] has encouraged thousands of Central American children to try to reach the United States by granting them access to immigration courts that Mexican kids don’t enjoy.”
Congress refused to act on Obama’s request, and still hasn’t. Consequently, increasing numbers of UACs — mostly from non-contiguous countries — arrived at the Southwest border illegally during President Trump’s term, from fewer than 42,000 in FY 2017 to just over 50,000 in FY 2018 before topping out at more than 76,000 in FY 2019 — a then-record.
Trump responded as best he could by boosting ORR’s vetting process for sponsors in the United States, but few in the media gave the 45th president any benefits of the doubt when it came to migrant children (see: “kids in cages”), and many complained when that office was sheltering UACs for 102 days on average before releasing them to sponsors in the country.
“A Moral Failing and a National Shame”. Among those critics was then-candidate Joe Biden, who proclaimed in the second sentence of his campaign website’s lengthy immigration page: “It is a moral failing and a national shame when ... children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely.”
Once he seized the reins of executive power, now-President Biden was quick to act to move UACs out of ORR custody and into the hands of anyone who would take them. As the most recent UAC “fact sheet” from HHS explains: “As of August 1, 2023, there are 7,800 unaccompanied children in HHS’ care and the average length of time an unaccompanied child remained in ORR’s care was 27 days. ORR is working to further reduce length of care in ways that do not jeopardize the safety or welfare of the children.”
Bully for them, I guess, but if you are wondering why, according to an April New York Times exposé, released migrant children are working in sweatshops and other dangerous jobs and being otherwise exploited, ORR’s rapid-release policies are the place to start; it’s where Congress has started, in no small part thanks to my colleague, Jessica Vaughan.
Not all of ORR’s manifold failures are on the front-end, however, as congressional oversight suggests that, as of April, the office had lost track of some 85,000 UACs that it had released to sponsors in the United States. If true — and there’s no reason to think that it's not — the number of “lost kids” now almost definitely exceeds 100,000.
“The United States, to State the Obvious, Is Greatly Concerned.” Not surprisingly given Joe Biden’s campaign rhetoric and subsequent rapid-release regime, the number of children Border Patrol has encountered entering illegally at the Southwest border has surged since he took office. Between February 2021 — his first month on the job — and the end of July, Border Patrol agents have apprehended nearly 316,000 UACs from non-contiguous countries at the Southwest border.
That’s an average of more than 10,500 kids per month, and if they were all in the same school district, it would be the sixth largest in the United States. It’s not surprising that agents set new UAC apprehension records in both FY 2021 (nearly 145,000 UACs) and again in FY 2022 (more than 149,000).
I’m the last defender of ORR when it comes to UACs, but to be fair to that office, such surges — and consequent abuses — were the inevitable consequence of the TVPRA’s senseless release protocol, at least absent some effort by the White House to deter illegal UAC entries. Simply put, section 235 is a huge magnet for parents, smugglers, and traffickers, and ORR isn’t built to handle any more than a couple thousand kids per year.
Obama understood this, which is why he engaged in a massive PR effort throughout Central America to dissuade parents from paying smugglers to bring their kids to this country. Part of that effort involved sending then-Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala City in June 2014 to discuss responses with regional leaders.
After that meeting, Biden told the waiting press corps:
The United States, to state the obvious, is greatly concerned by the startling number of unaccompanied minors that — children and teenagers who are making a very perilous journey through Central America to reach the United States. These are some of the most vulnerable migrants that ever attempt — and many from around the world attempt — to come to the United States. They’re among the most vulnerable. And the majority of these individuals rely — we estimate between 75 and 80 percent — rely on very dangerous, not-nice, human-smuggling networks that transport them through Central America and Mexico to the United States.
These smugglers — and everyone should know it, and not turn a blind eye to it — these smugglers routinely engage in physical and sexual abuse, and extortion of these innocent, young women and men by and large.
And they profit from the misery of these children and teenagers; these desperate, desperate young people.
. . .
[O]ne of the things we all talked today in our private meeting with the heads of state and their representatives, everyone agreed that these children should be reunited by their — with their parents, with their parents in the country from which they came. Everyone agreed to that. You’re clearly not going to send a child back to a circumstance where there is no one there for them. But we do intend, and everyone agreed, it is necessary to put them back in the hands of a parent in the country from which they came. [Emphasis added.]
That was then and this is now, but what happened to the man who understood that (1) the smugglers bringing those kids were dangerous criminals, and often sexual predators to boot; and (2) that the only solution was to send those kids back home? Because he’s plainly not calling the shots at the border.
“State Troopers Rescue Abandoned Children Along Texas-Mexico Border.” Just how heartless are those smugglers? Consider the following article from Texas Scorecard, published on August 24:
During the ongoing Texas-Mexico border crisis, Texas Department of Public Safety [DPS] Troopers located two young children abandoned in Eagle Pass.
DPS spokesman Lt. Chris Olivarez said, “In the last 24 hrs, Troopers have recovered 4 unaccompanied children in Eagle Pass.
The latest two children recovered were a pair of siblings — a four-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl — from Chiapas, Mexico.
The children were immediately turned over to U.S. Border Patrol since Texas cannot process illegal alien children.
If the state of Texas “cannot process illegal alien children”, why is it picking them up in the Rio Grande town of Eagle Pass? Because DPS is there as part of “Operation Lone Star”, an effort Abbott started in March 2021 to help secure the border once Biden’s border policies really started getting revved up.
Normally, Border Patrol doesn’t need such help, but so many illegal migrants have entered illegally in response to the president’s feckless border policies that federal agents can no longer handle the flow. An unsecure border is a hazard to Texas, and so Abbott sent DPS troopers and Texas National Guard troops to try to plug the gaps.
Not that the Biden administration appreciates the help. Most notably (and recently), DOJ has sued the state to remove a floating buoy barrier system in the Rio Grande that is intended to deter illicit cross-river migrants.
Did I mention that those buoys are along the river across from Eagle Pass, where those Mexican toddlers were recovered?
Note, however, that they aren’t the only kids Texas has saved. As Olivarez explained: “Since the implementation of [Operation Lone Star], DPS Troopers have rescued over 900 children from human smuggling/trafficking/abandonment events.”
To paraphrase Joe Biden, “Texas, to state the obvious, is greatly concerned by the startling number of unaccompanied minors,” but unlike the man himself, Abbott’s doing something about it.
That said, ORR is slipping further behind. NewsNation reported on August 28 that HHS is currently sheltering “more than 10,000” UACs, and also — get this — that “some immigration advocates say they’re worried children are being released to sponsors who exploit them for child labor”. To quote Bruce Willis in Die Hard, “Welcome to the party, pal!”
Biden doesn’t bear sole blame for the migrant child crisis at the Southwest border (Congress started it and didn’t fix it when Obama asked them to), but it has festered on his watch and only gotten worse. Vice President Biden understood that abetting smugglers to bring kids to the border puts those kids in danger, and that those kids belong in their home countries, not here. If only President Biden did, too.