As soon as I tell anyone that I am interning for the Center for Immigration Studies, I'm asked about the influx of unaccompanied minors at our southwest border. A crisis situation exists with illegal aliens flooding into America, knowing that as soon as they turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, they will likely be processed and eventually discharged to family members already in the United States or to foster families.
On June 11, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing regarding oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. With DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in the hot seat, the first topic Sen. Leahy (D-Vt.) addressed, not surprisingly, was this massive influx of minors. Noting that President Obama had called the problem an "urgent humanitarian issue", and that the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was growing quickly, Sen. Leahy asked Secretary Johnson — point-blank — how he planned to solve this issue.
Johnson outlined a multi-step plan, including a Unified Coordination Group (UCG) involving various agencies, from DHS to the Departments of Justice and Defense. A key tenet of this plan includes leasing space at government bases in the southern United States to temporarily house the minors. Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and a facility in Nogales, Arizona, represent just two examples of locations established as temporary, transitional facilities. FEMA has assigned 70 personnel to oversee these sites (although, as a Louisiana native who experienced FEMA's abilities firsthand after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we will see how well that works). After a stop at one of these locations, these young illegal immigrants are to be transferred to longer-term establishments in Ventura, California, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
More recently, on June 25, the issue was brought before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan said in his testimony that agencies of the UCG were "working to continue to identify additional facilities ... to house and process the influx."
Time — or lack thereof — remains a major issue. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, in statements released shortly after she was informed of Fort Sill's incoming minors, said that the Obama administration assured her that the use of Fort Sill would be temporary. But if the Lackland AFB and Nogales operations are "temporary", and so are the Fort Sill and Ventura operations, does this mean that all of these unaccompanied minors will magically find legitimate residence in the United States or be returned to their home countries? And assuming we can effectively disperse the minors currently in these facilities, how does that slow down the number coming across the border?
Secretary Johnson assured senators that he was in contact with the ambassadors from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (the main home countries of the minors), and would be traveling to Central America in July. As we examine the short-term, though, we must look forward as well to see what this could mean for these unaccompanied minors. In his testimony, Tom Homan, the official overseeing Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s removal operations, noted that "it could take two years, or it could take five years" for all of these aliens to be processed by immigration courts, assuming that all of them even heed their notices to appear at their proceedings.
The number of minors arriving is increasing quickly, which means that these temporary facilities are reaching capacity and the backlogged immigration court hearings are accumulating just as fast. Can we really wait for Secretary Johnson to head to Central America, speak with all three representatives separately, and start formulating a plan? His Unified Coordination Group will not be able to handle a continued influx. What we need is a sound, long-term solution to stop this deluge and return those who are not valid "refugees" home, and we need it now.