Until about three years ago, federal agents annually intercepted some 8,000 unaccompanied minors entering the United States illegally. By last year, the number had jumped to nearly 26,000. This year's projection: As many as 60,000 youngsters may attempt to cross into this country without parents or papers.
This surge of under-age humanity presents two problems. First is understanding the forces propelling it, which experts say include narco-trafficking, Central American gang violence and abusive homes. Parents desperate to raise their children outside the reach of powerful gangs are packing them off to the north, making the calculated gamble that the trip will be safer than staying put. Other youths are caught up in sex-trafficking or similarly exploitative or abusive situations, and they come to this country to escape.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees released a report Wednesday spotlighting the problem and calling on the governments of the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to work together to stem the flow; acknowledge that more than half the minors likely have internationally recognized cause to be granted refugee status based on the risks they face at home; and adopt procedures to identify those with legitimate claims for asylum or refugee status. Regrettably, the report did not offer suggestions on what the nations should do to address the root causes.
It's sensible to seek a regional approach to a humanitarian issue that is beyond the power of a single government to control. A joint effort holds greater potential to address the causes of this migration trend, and the affected governments should work together to find a solution before it becomes a migration crisis.
The second problem the U.S. faces is what to do with the youngsters once they get here. Unlike people charged with criminal offenses, those detained on immigration violations do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney during deportation proceedings, so if the detained person can't afford a lawyer, he or she often faces the judge alone. There are real consequences: A 2007 Georgetown University Law Center study found that people represented by lawyers were three times more likely to win protection.
The issue is compounded when the defendant is a child. Children barely of school age have been compelled to argue alone in immigration court why they should be allowed to stay. Often, the children can't even understand the language, let alone the process, which means there is a very real chance that minors who qualify for asylum or other protections are being booted out of the country without a fair hearing.
This is wrong. There are reasons for and against providing indigent adults with legal help as they seek permission to remain in the country, a debate we won't join here. How unaccompanied children are processed within the U.S. immigration system is a different issue that needs addressing out of fairness, if not a sense of humanity.
The federal government should develop a system under which unaccompanied minors have access to a lawyer or experienced advocate (as happens in child-welfare court proceedings) to defend their interests. A number of nonprofit organizations, such as Kids in Need of Defense, have been training and coordinating pro bono lawyers to help children. While the number of available lawyers falls far below the need, that pro bono system could offer a framework for the government to build on — much like a targeted public defender system — to ensure that all detained unaccompanied minors have someone in their corner during deportation proceedings.