The issue of illegal immigration in the United States is not new, but in recent months it has returned to the spotlight amid much criticism of how Barack Obama’s administration has handled it.
According to government figures, in the past year about 57,000 children have been detained in the United States for crossing the border illegally. The Justice Department currently has more than 375,000 migrant cases being handled by a mere 243 judges.
During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Leslie Velez, a senior protection officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), and to Al Jazeera’s Paul Beban, who was in Honduras last week, where he spoke with people about why they’re willing to risk their lives to travel to the U.S. Both guests emphasized how dangerous the journey is for the migrants, especially for children, but said that the migrants believe it is a risk worth taking.
“These parents and children are looking for any chance to get away from where they are, for any length of time,” said Beban. “The state is unable to provide any meaningful services. It can’t protect its own people, and more often than not, the police are as corrupt as the gangs and drug cartels.”
Much of the violence in Latin America stems from the lucrative trade in illicit drugs, whose biggest consumers are people in the United States. This demand for drugs, mainly cocaine, feeds the ever-growing problem in the region.
Velez cited a UNCHR review of 404 children saying, “We saw that almost 58 percent of them presented strong indicators of need for strong international protection. They need to share their stories with someone who is trained to hear their story and have access to asylum procedures before being sent back.”
For some people, it can take three years or more to get a hearing, with the average wait being 587 days. Critics of the Obama administration say that long delays only encourage more immigrants to head to the U.S.
Beban added, “If you are a child who is taken into custody at the border and you have an undocumented parent somewhere in the country, you’re going to be processed and released into their custody for at least a year and a half.”
“For any family in Honduras, that’s a win. That’s a much safer year and a half in that child’s life than they would have spent at home.”
Obama has asked Congress for nearly $4 billion to deal with the situation. He traveled this week to meet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry to discuss the problem. On Sunday, dozens of governors met privately with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell on the sidelines of the annual National Governors Association meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. They’re looking for federal assistance to host the thousands of migrant children in their states.
Beban said that the amount that Obama requested from Congress is only 0.1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, so there should be a way to address the problem.
Last week the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala agreed to make it safer and legal for Guatemalans to pass through Mexico on their way to the United States. The deal, however, didn’t take into account that the migrants would be entering the U.S. illegally. Drayton asked Beban and Velez what the leaders south of the border are doing to curb the problem.
Velez said that during recent talks in Nicaragua, “the region still spoke in terms of shared responsibility and solidarity, underscoring the need for action, especially when it comes to the protection of so many children.”
She put the numbers into perspective, saying, “The U.S. can meet the challenge. It’s something that can be easily controlled.” She said that with nearly 60,000 migrants entering the U.S. in one year, “when we look at the comparison, there is a flow of 10,000 people leaving Syria into Jordan and Lebanon every day.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican is sending its secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to Mexico this week to discuss the issue with officials from several Latin American countries. The talks are meant to include problems that cause migration in the first place, protection of the migrants and protocols for those who are deported.