Since last fall, the Department of Homeland Security has consistently stated that Border Patrol’s temporary holding spaces were not designed nor ever intended to detain the record numbers of migrants illegally crossing the border, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families every month.
During multiple border trips, our panel consistently observed alarming conditions at holding facilities despite Border Patrol’s valiant efforts to feed, clothe and improve medical care for migrants, many of whom arrived diseased or ill from the perilous journey.
With dangerous, illegal border crossings continuously rising, in April our bipartisan panel of the Homeland Security Advisory Council issued its public report urging emergency funding and legislative fixes to address this surge and the nation’s broken immigration system.
Our recommendations included establishing temporary regional centers near the southwest border and another in Guatemala with sufficient living space, judges, security and medical support to humanely care for families and children and timely process their claims. Today, our panel still awaits congressional action on our emergency recommendations from April 16.
The numbers are staggering. This fiscal year, more than 266,000 children illegally crossed our border primarily from Central America, exceeding the past two fiscal years combined.
Because of an outdated legal framework, there are few options for unaccompanied children from Central America. Under current law, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is prevented from keeping children together with close relatives who aren’t their parent or legal guardian. Only Congress can change that. Legally, these children cannot be repatriated back home nor can they simply be released into the interior of the USA. They must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for placement with a sponsor.
This year’s backlogs in transferring children ages 12 and under from Border Patrol custody to HHS did not exist last year. But, as the numbers of families and children illegally crossing the border repeatedly spiked to historic levels, it exceeded the fixed space and beds of HHS. That’s why, in April, federal agencies that had exhausted their budgets for housing children requested emergency funding to avoid this very crisis of children held at inadequate Border Patrol facilities.
Unfortunately, Congress didn’t pass emergency funding until June 27, almost two months later.
Based on our review, Homeland Security has done all it reasonably could with limited resources to care for children who should have been transferred from Border Patrol to HHS custody within 72 hours, and ideally for tender aged children within 24 hours. The Border Patrol did not cause this crisis; our broken immigration system did.
To fix this problem requires immediate changes to our laws, not just funding. With passage of the supplemental funding, Congress has demonstrated that it has the capacity to change the law if members have the will.
The authors are members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Families and Children Care Panel. Karen Tandy is panel chair and a retired administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration; Jayson Ahern is a former acting commissioner of CBP; Robert C. Bonner is a former CBP commissioner and U.S. District judge; and James R. Jones is a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and member of the House of Representatives.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On migrant children: Homeland Security has done all we reasonably could