What The Law Actually Says About Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors

Since October 2013, 52,000 children from Central America have been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. They are coming here by themselves, many searching for their parents. It’s just one more piece in the larger immigration debate that seems to have quieted down until after the November election.

Republicans in Congress are quick to point the finger at the Obama administration. Two years ago, the administration decided to defer deporting young immigrants who met certain criteria and have lived in the states continuously since June 2007. But, as usual with partisan rhetoric, they are missing half of the debate.

In 2008, Congress passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which the Senate passed by unanimous consent, and was signed by President George W. Bush. Though the law’s main intent deals with human trafficking, it does contain a section that deals with children arriving in the U.S. illegally unaccompanied by an adult.

Children from Mexico are returned immediately, as they would be if they were an adult apprehended illegally entering the U.S. However, children from a non-contiguous nation, such as those in Central America, have a different process.

The children must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services which is in charge of their care, finds them safe housing, and apprises them of their legal rights as their immigration cases are decided. Deportation proceedings can take time as immigration courts are generally backed up.

Republicans, who in recent weeks have claimed that the Obama administration is not enforcing the laws passed by Congress, are actually demanding that the president not enforce the TVPRA and send the children back to their home countries immediately without any deportation hearings.

Last week, President Obama signaled a willingness to do so but only if Congress modified the TVPRA. The leadership of both the House and the Senate do not seem to be interested in changing the current law, and as of July 7, the Obama administration has backtracked a little though it still would like more authority to act.

Until the law is changed, the children that have come here unaccompanied have to go through the process outlined by the TVPRA. President Obama has asked Congress for $4 billion in extra funds to deal with the situation.

In the debate surrounding these children, it should be noted that they are not refugees or seeking asylum which would be completely different. Asylum and refugee status are special legal protections only available to people who have fled their home countries out of fear and cannot return and can only be sought once they have entered the U.S. There are strict requirements that a person must show in order to be granted those protections.

And though we debate this issue now in regards to Mexicans and those from Central American countries, this is not the first time we as a nation have had this discussion. In the mid-19th century, it was over Irish immigrants. Most were processed legally through Ellis Island but the same arguments that were used then are still being used today against legal and illegal immigrants.

If Republicans in Congress have a problem with that, then they need to change the law instead of telling the president not to enforce it.

This doesn’t come as a result of a DREAM Act. It comes from an inability to deal with our broken immigration system in terms of those wanting to come here legally, and what to do with those who enter illegally.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” For now, as we detain these illegal immigrant children, we need to treat them humanely until they are eventually returned to their countries of origin. If Republicans want this process to be sped up, then they need to revise the TVPRA.