Unaccompanied Minors and Families Remain A Huge Problem For Immigration Authorities

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

Border security hawks had much to cheer about in the fiscal year 2017 arrest data released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security, but progress remains stalled in one key component of illegal immigration.

Masked by a dramatic decline in overall border apprehensions, the number of unaccompanied children (UAC) and family units illegally crossing the southwest border jumped in May and continued to rise during the rest of the fiscal year.

The number of UAC and families apprehended along the border under the Trump administration is still well below the levels seen during the waning months of the Obama administration. Immigration authorities are concerned the recent uptick indicates the early deterrent effect of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration may be wearing off.

Acting Deputy Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Ron Vitiello said criminals are exploiting “legal and policy” loopholes to smuggle minors and family units into the country, particularly illegal immigrants from Central America.

The number of UAC and families arrested in April fell to recent historic lows of 997 and 1,118, respectively, according to CBP data. The relatively tiny number of apprehensions within those categories matched an impressive drop in overall arrests along the southwest border.

But the next month, both UAC and family apprehensions spiked and continued to increase month-over-month until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The total number of border arrests also increased; however, the rise in UAC and family unit apprehensions was much more pronounced.

There were about 22,500 southwest border arrests in September, twice as many as the 11,127 in April. Over the same period, apprehensions of UAC tripled and those of family units nearly quadrupled.

The UAC and family cases are particularly troublesome for immigration authorities because they trigger complex appeals in immigration courts. Families often petition for asylum after being apprehended, which obligates the government defer to deportation while asylum officers and immigration judges assess claims of “credible fear” persecution.

The Trump administration says the process is vulnerable to fraud and contributes to an immigration court backlog. Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, called on Congress on Tuesday to “tighten standards” for asylum claims and increase penalties for fraudulent petitions.

Much of the recent increase in UAC and family unit apprehensions is driven by continued illegal migration from Central America, especially the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Illegal immigration from those three countries has surpassed that from Mexico: In fiscal year 2017, 162,891 southwest border arrests were of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, compared to 127,938 people from Mexico.

Under immigration law, arrested UAC must be placed in the least restrictive setting during immigration court proceedings. This typically means placement with a parent, relative or other sponsor in the U.S.

Conservative immigration reformers have raised questions about the connection between resettlement of Central American UAC and the growth of the violent transnational gang MS-13. Although it is not known precisely what portion of the gang’s U.S. membership comes from the recruitment of resettled UAC, recent federal anti-gang operations have resulted in the arrest of dozens of MS-13 member who came to the U.S. illegally as UAC.

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