The Obama administration acknowledged Wednesday that most of the illegal immigrant children surging across the U.S.-Mexico border are still here, and most will remain in the country for years while their cases wind through the immigration courts.
Of the unaccompanied children apprehended over the last five years, 87 percent are still awaiting court rulings, one top official told Congress, which means in the meantime the children have been released and are living in the U.S.
“There’s a lack of immigration judges, so some of these hearings take years,” said Thomas Homan, executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who said five years wasn’t unusual for one of these court cases.
Mr. Homan said that of the more than 30,000 unaccompanied minors captured last year, just 1,800 were deported.
The administration is trying to push back against a perception that illegal immigrants can show up at the border and gain a “permiso,” or “free pass,” to be let into the country. President Obama’s top lieutenants have said there is no free pass waiting.
Touring the border Wednesday with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reiterated that line.
“I want to continue to emphasize to all those who are listening, including the parents of kids, parents that may be considering sending their kid from Central America, that this journey is a dangerous one and at the end of it there is no free pass, there is no ‘permisos’ for your children to come to the United States,” he said.
But the new statistics suggested that for many, that five-year period amounts to a free pass
“These individuals know that the administration’s policy of non-enforcement of our immigration laws presents a golden opportunity for unaccompanied minors and families with minors to come to the U.S., most likely to be released with very little chance of ever being removed,” said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The administration expects the number of unaccompanied children apprehended on the border to surge to 90,000 this year, and 140,000 next year.
The problems go beyond the children, however. Central American families with parents and children crossing the border are also surging, reaching 42,000 so far this year.
Mr. Homan admitted the government has just 96 beds to hold those immigrants — meaning almost all of them are given court dates and then released into the country, where agents say they disappear into the shadows and don’t show up to be deported.
“It’s ridiculous. There’s no way that we can do our jobs and enforce the laws of the United States if we don’t have bed space to hold people that we apprehend,” said Christopher Crane, president of the ICE Council, the union for ICE agents and officers.
The administration said it is trying to surge resources to handle the flow, and is trying to mount a public-relations campaign in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras telling potential newcomers that the journey is difficult and they won’t be eligible for amnesty when they arrive.
But Rep. Sean Duffy, Wisconsin Republican, mocked those plans, saying it was “insulting” to Central American parents, who already know the dangers and yet are still sending their children. He said the answer was to take a stern stance on deporting the children.