Senate appropriators on Tuesday added $1 billion to a spending bill to pay for social workers caring for the surge of children pouring across the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the humanitarian crisis is growing so quickly it’s outpacing the government’s ability to handle it.
The money, which will still need to be approved by the full Senate and House, marks the first concrete steps from Congress as both Capitol Hill and the Obama administration try to catch up with the unfolding crisis on the border.
In May alone, 9,500 children traveling without parents were caught trying to enter the U.S. by the U.S. Border Patrol, lawmakers said.
The Border Patrol expects more than 90,000 to have been apprehended by the end of this fiscal year in September and predicts more than 140,000 will be apprehended next year as the problem grows.
The boost in money, which brings the total to $2 billion, will go to the Health and Human Services Department, which takes custody of the children after they are processed by Homeland Security agents.
But those on both sides of the immigration debate are raising concerns that HHS is being overwhelmed by the numbers.
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Immigrant-rights advocates said HHS officials have stopped fingerprinting relatives who come to collect the children.
Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, said with the spike in numbers, the government is moving fast — and perhaps too quickly — to process the children. Some are held for as little as three days, leaving little time for background checks to vet the relatives who come to collect them.
“They’ve really curtailed those procedures to the point where we’re quite concerned about who these children are released to,” she said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, concurred.
“Can anyone at the White House or in the administration say with certainty that the children being released from U.S. custody are leaving with an actual family member?” the senator said Tuesday. “For that matter, can the administration say with certainty that none of these children have been handed over to an adult with a criminal record?”
Most of the children are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and it’s not just the U.S. that’s seeing a spike. Other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Peru and Costa Rica are seeing increases in asylum requests, said Michelle Brane, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
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Immigrant-rights advocates said that’s proof the cause of the mass migration is deteriorating conditions in the three countries rather than the lure of potential legal status, either from legislation or from President Obama’s unilateral actions.
Shawn P. Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents line agents, said that while the violence may have sparked initial flows, at this point word has gotten back to children in the three countries that they can gain at least a tentative foothold in the U.S.
“The problem that we see now is the word has spread that unaccompanied juveniles are being allowed to continue to their final destination, and they’re being released to their relatives in the U.S., so we feel there’s no real consequences to their breaking that law,” he said.