Until about three years ago, federal agents annually intercepted 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.
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 United States 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.
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.
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.