What's the price tag for the border crisis? Try $3.7 billion

What's the price tag for the border crisis? Try $3.7 billion
Immigration authorities have opened a shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to house a rising number of unaccompanied minors who have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. (Department of Health and Human Services)

Protecting the border is getting even more expensive.

The Obama administration has announced that it will seek another $3.7 billion — substantially more than the $2 billion it talked about before — to deal with the flow across the southern border of unaccompanied minors. It wants to use the money to expand the legal system that federal law requires handles the minors' cases, and the facilities to house them while the process unfolds.


As The Times editorial page has noted, the flood of unaccompanied minors is a complex issue, the result of such regional pressures as international gangs, traffickers in drugs and human beings, and the southward flow of weapons from the U.S. The United Nations is pushing for the crisis to be viewed not as an American immigration issue but as a regional humanitarian crisis and that the kids be considered refugees, which could open the door for resettlement in the U.S. and other nations. So far, the Obama administration, which refers to it as a humanitarian crisis, has stopped short of calling the kids refugees. It also says most of the kids eventually will be returned home.

Of course, Obama critics complain that the administration is ignoring laws by not just pushing the kids back across the border, despite the inherent inhumanity of disregarding children who may have legitimate cases to present for asylum. But the administration is following the law.

Called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, it was signed by President George W. Bush as one of his last measures, and it requires that unaccompanied minors from nations other than Mexico and Canada receive a judicial review before a decision is made on deporting them. The law was framed to counter human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, but it’s clear in its requirements that all intercepted unaccompanied minors from noncontiguous nations get a day in court. So the administration is stuck with that unless Congress revises the law (insert chuckle here), which it could do when the House addresses immigration reform (insert louder chuckle here).

The administration's announcement offers a detailed look at what it wants to do, including:

  • $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with $116 million for transportation costs; $109 million to expand the Border Enforcement Security Task Force program, double its presence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and expand ICE Homeland Security investigations; and $879 million to expand the capacity to detain and remove undocumented adults (usually mothers) traveling with children.
  • $433 million for customs and border protection, with most of it — $364 million — covering increased operating costs, including overtime, $29 million to increase the ability to share information with other law enforcement agencies, and $39.4 million to add 16 crews handling an additional 16,526 flight hours for border surveillance.
  • $64 million to the Department of Justice, of which $45.4 million would go toward hiring 40 more “judge teams” to handle the caseloads (including adding videoconferencing for hearings), adding to the 35-team increase in the upcoming budget request. Together, the administration says, that will let it handle up to 75,000 cases year. This also would spend $12.6 million to expand legal representation for the detainees and for the government.
  • $300 million to the State Department, primarily ($295 million) to help repatriate the removed minors to their home countries. And $5 million would go toward campaigns targeting potential migrants before they leave, laying out how dangerous the trip is and the likelihood they will be sent home anyway.
  • $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to care for the kids while the deportation process is underway.

Whether this added spending will significantly reduce the problem is the big question. Part of the pulling effect into the U.S. is the misperception that unaccompanied minors will get permits to stay once they get here, rumors pushed by the traffickers based on two things:

First, there is Obama's policy of granting a temporary deportation deferral to undocumented people brought to the U.S. as minors before 2007, which has been misinterpreted to mean kids sneaking in now will get to stay. That deferral is a sensible, humanitarian policy that shouldn't get jettisoned just to counter lies spread by coyotes.

Second are the long delays in deportation proceedings because the system is swamped with cases. It does make sense that speeding up that process and sending the kids home much faster would help dispel the belief that they're getting permisos to stay.

But unless the conditions in the home countries improve, I suspect the problem at the border will continue. It will take a reduction in the gangs, the drug trafficking, the availability of guns — all issues that, as a country, we've been pretty bad at addressing within our own borders, let alone in other countries.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle