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Editorial: A renewed influx of migrant children across the border tests Biden administration

A boy sits cross-legged on the ground at night while shielding his face from a light.
In this file photo from 2019, an 11-year-old unaccompanied minor from Mexico turns himself in to law enforcement after crossing the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. A new surge of unaccompanied minors will test the Biden administration.
(The Los Angeles Times )

President Biden is facing a critical test as a surge of migrants, emboldened by the end of the Trump era, is arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of forging better lives here in the U.S. One challenge in particular is the sharp increase in unaccompanied minors.

Federal agents encountered 5,871 unaccompanied minors at the border in January, up from 3,076 in January 2020. How Biden handles this surge could become a defining moment in his administration.

We’ve been here before. In fact, the federal government has been wrestling with this deeply complex problem for years. During the Obama administration an influx of unaccompanied minors, who under law (and basic humanity) require different handling than work-seeking adults, overwhelmed the system, leading the government to hold children in border stations and detention centers as officials struggled to find places for them to live while their cases proceeded through the immigration courts. There’s a library of studies by child psychologists about how damaging such detentions are to children.

The reopening of a migrant children’s detention center spotlights how much better the government must do with unaccompanied minors asking for help.

Then came the Trump administration, whose answers included claiming a health emergency and directing border agents to turn children and adults around rather than letting them pursue their legal right to seek permission to enter and stay.

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Biden has pledged a more compassionate approach, but he has also warned that undoing the harsh Trump policies will take more than a few strokes of a pen. The administration reportedly is turning a newly reopened children’s detention center in Texas into a processing center to help border agents meet their legal obligation to turn over unaccompanied minors within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which then has 20 days to place them in safe and secure homes while their cases are processed — deadlines the government routinely misses.

Reforming our immigration system is necessary but difficult. Creating paths to citizenship or legal status for Dreamers and TPS holders should be easy.

We welcome Biden’s more humane approach, but wonder whether it will succeed in the face of the rising tide of juveniles arriving without parents or guardians. Once again the nation is watching its government strain to meet obligations Congress imposed to treat unaccompanied minors with the delicacy they deserve. Once again we see a growing crisis spotlight the broad inadequacies of the government’s immigration enforcement system to deal compassionately with human migration.

The solutions require broad vision and actions, including efforts to reduce the instability in Central American countries that send so many people fleeing in the first place. Such efforts, of course, run into a headwind of deep-rooted corruption in some of those countries.

But the longer the government leaves those broad solutions unfulfilled, the more it will be forced to deal with waves of migration, one crisis following another. We need a better way of doing this.


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