Procedures for helping young unaccompanied illegal immigrants are based in part on legislation approved by Congress in 2008, yet some lawmakers who did not object to the measure then are against the procedures now.
Gov. Mary Fallin and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, were members of the U.S. House when the bill passed without objection.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 also passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
The act was mainly intended to help human trafficking victims, but one part had provisions for unaccompanied illegal immigrants under age 18.
The legislation said they must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.” The U.S. Health and Human Services Department is to provide for their custody and care while deportation hearings are under way. The department is to attempt to find a parent or a sponsor in the United States while providing free legal representation and a child advocate.
Since October, more than 52,000 children from Central America have been apprehended, more than double the previous year. White House officials said that while they are often fleeing extreme violence and impoverished conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, they are also acting under the misinformation that once they arrive here they essentially get a free pass to stay. Purveyors of the misinformation are thought to include people making money by smuggling them across the border.
Cole said housing the young people with family members already in this country or through foster care is “de facto amnesty.”
“It would be far more appropriate to return those who have come to the country illegally to their country of origin as quickly and humanely as possible,” he said.
Fallin said a message of permissiveness has gone out to potential illegal immigrants.
“Basically we’ve told families, we’ve told children that if you want to come to the United States as an unaccompanied child, or a teenager, come on, that we’re basically going to give you amnesty here in America,” she said.
In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said the message needs to go out that these young people will be promptly sent home.
However, the 2008 act mandates the current, often lengthy, procedures under which the young people are given temporary housing and an array of services while a parent or sponsor is sought in the United States pending deportation hearings, which are often delayed because immigration courts are backed up with pending cases.
Cole and Fallin blame the influx of illegal immigrants on “lax immigration policies” by President Barack Obama.
Cole said the 2008 act of Congress is not to blame for the influx. If it were to blame, the big uptick in unaccompanied minor immigrants, which has been seen for a couple of years now, would have occurred earlier, he said.
“While perhaps not deliberate, the president’s policy has led his administration to take drastic emergency measures they didn’t expect,” he said.
Two years ago, the Obama administration decided to defer removal for young illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria, including continuous residence in the United States since June 15, 2007.
Unaccompanied illegal immigrants who have crossed the border in recent years wouldn’t have been in the United States since 2007, and would not meet this criteria.
But Fallin points to this administration policy as a reason for the influx.
“President Obama’s policies — including his decision two years ago that his administration would stop deporting young illegal immigrants as proposed under the DREAM Act — are directly responsible for the current border crisis that is now spilling over to facilities such as the one at Fort Sill,” she said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he wants to fight the impression that there is any sort of free immigration pass for unaccompanied young illegal immigrants.
“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," Johnson said.
After the young people cross the border illegally and are picked up by Border Patrol agents, they are turned over to Health and Human Services Department representatives. They are taken to a temporary shelter facility, like the one at Fort Sill, which is housing 1,001 people ages 12 to 17 in a converted military barracks, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the department’s Administration for Children and Families.
The White House has reached out to government officials in Central America to take steps to stem the tide of illegal immigration, including offering funding to help in this effort. Administration officials have also stepped up the public relations efforts to get out the word that there is no free pass for young immigrants.