An Update On Young Immigrants: From D.C., The Border And Beyond

Originally published on July 11, 2014 8:01 am

An influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America is overwhelming law enforcement officials along the US-Mexico border in what President Obama is calling a "humanitarian crisis." Steve Inskeep speaks with John Burnett, Mara Liasson and Carrie Kahn to get an overview on the current immigration debate and update us on the latest developments on Capitol Hill, along the border and in Central America.

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Now, let's answer some frequently asked questions about the border crisis. We're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson in Washington, John Burnett who covers the border, and Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Welcome to all of you folks.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Great to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ah, John Burnett, let's start with you. You cover the border. How many kids, remind us, are we talking about here? And what countries, mainly?

BURNETT: From three Central American countries mainly. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which have big gang problems, high crime rate. More than 52,000 have come in the last nine months. They're expecting 60,000 by October. Border patrolmen down in the Rio Grande Valley tells me that they're picking up 1,000 to 1,200 a day, and about three quarters of those are Central Americans.

INSKEEP: Ok, wow. Now how does that flow compare to the capacity to deal with them, John?

BURNETT: Well, they're opening these shelters all over the Southwest to try to handle these kids. And the reason that it's slow in getting the shelters to open, is that Health and Human Services has to be involved, and they have to be appropriate for kids. They're not just for adults. And so, they have to have recreation, and sort of special facilities. And so, that's why you're seeing the government scramble and really, with difficulty, try to find these places. Because there's some community push back. Remember, we saw the community in Murrieta, California, blocking that bus last week.

INSKEEP: How fast are people being deported?

BURNETT: Well, this is where it really gets into the weeds. I was in immigration court in San Antonio last week, and I really witnessed firsthand this tremendous backlog. You know, 360,000 plus cases. Kids are different. Once again, they have to get due process. They can be here for two and three years before they get a response to their asylum request, and then in some cases they don't have lawyers. And that slows down things even more, because the judges want to make sure that they're getting fair treatment.

INSKEEP: Now, Carrie Kahn, you've spent a lot of time in Mexico City. I want to ask about what's driving this. We've reported about rumors of amnesty in the United States. We've reported, as John mentioned, about severe security problems in Central America. Is there anything else driving this flow?

KAHN: I think a big part of what's pushing people out of the region is their desire to reunite with family members. You know, look, Central America has a bit different of a migration history with the U.S., a little bit different than Mexico. Over the last 20, 30, years, Central Americans have repeatedly received temporary permissions to come into the U.S. Many as refugees from the armed conflicts of the '80s, there's also a lot of natural disasters; earthquakes in El Salvador, Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

So, there's been more of a, you could say, a circular immigration between the U.S. and the region. Parents come over, they work and send money back to their children. They could even go back and forth for a time. But since the border crackdown in the late '90s, and especially after 9/11, that pattern has been cut off, and families have been separated for years. And they see this now as their opportunity to reunite.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, the Obama administration is insisting, they do intend to deport people who are caught. They are not going to be released permanently into the United States. Is that message, at this point, getting back to Central America?

KAHN: That's the crux of the issue right now. There are public service announcements that I've heard of Central America, but they're really short. They don't go into a lot of details. But I think that's the big point. People don't really know the details of why they're getting in right now; just that they are. And like what John said, they could stay for three or four years as they move slowly through this process. I'll just tell you quickly one story I heard of.

This Guatemalan woman, 11 years ago, left her three-month-old with a distant relative to go work in the U.S. In May of this year, she shows up, and wants the kid back. So she takes the kid, she crosses the border, she gets caught. The two of them were in detention. And now they're out, awaiting deportation proceedings. So, it just talks to how powerful family ties are. And radio spots or public service announcements aren't really going to deter that pull.

INSKEEP: So, you get a sense of the human demand here, which is what the Obama administration says it wants to address with $3.7 billion in funding. That's what the president has asked Congress for.

Mara Liasson, is the president likely to get it?

LIASSON: He is not going to get $3.7 billion. That was an opening bid. It is possible he'll get something. Because, underneath all of the partisan finger-pointing, there is a remarkable amount of agreement on what has to happen. Everyone agrees there has to be a faster process for these kids. And I've heard Democrats and Republicans say that the first planeload of Honduran or Guatemalan kids that goes back to their country will put a stop to this flow.

KAHN: If - I could just throw this out there - when I was recently in Guatemala, I was there when a plane came back. Not a planeload of kids, but there was more than a dozen kids returning, deported from the U.S. I talked to all of those kids. I talk to their parents. All of them told me that they're going to try again.

INSKEEP: Is this affecting the wider immigration debate?

LIASSON: I think it is affecting the wider immigration debate. This happened just as the president announced that by the end of the summer, he was going to start deciding what unilateral actions he could take, since Congress has already told him, we're not going to do immigration reform this year, we're giving up.

He was going to have to make some very important decisions. How far to go to ease deportations beyond the DREAM Act. In other words, beyond just these kids who are enrolled in college or the military.

And, this has riled up the anti-amnesty base of the Republican Party. It's also caused the groups, the pro-immigration reforms advocates, to call for an easing of deportation policy.

So, the White House has to decide, while the DREAMers were a very sympathetic group of people - young people brought here by their parents, now in college or the military. How much sympathy will there be, political sympathy, for other kinds of people who are here illegally?

INSKEEP: One more question, Mara Liasson. There was a 2008 law that made it harder to deport kids who come across the border. It guarantees them due process.

That appears, according to some analysts, to be the reason that deportations have slowed down so much. Do people in Congress want to change that law?

LIASSON: Many Republicans want to change the law. The law provides for a different legal process for kids from Central America versus kids from Mexico. The White House has asked for flexibility to treat all these kids the same, regardless of what country they come from. There is a debate about whether the law needs to be changed, or whether the president currently has discretion in that law. I think the White House would sign a law that changed the 2008 bill, but there's a big debate in Congress about whether that has to happen.

BURNETT: And you have to remember, there's enormous pushback. From not only from Democrats in Congress, but the whole immigrant advocate community is enraged that this law would be changed. And that they see that some of these Central American kids would be sent back to their death in these neighborhoods that are full of gang members.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett covers the border. John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: We also heard from NPR's Mara Liasson here in Washington, and Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thanks to you.

KAHN: Thanks.

LIASSON: Thanks for having us.

INSKEEP: And you can find more answers to frequently asked questions at our website, It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.