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Why Children Are Pouring Across the Border

A 2008 law created a perverse incentive for families around the globe.

The Department of Health and Human Services processed 122,000 “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC) in its shelters last fiscal year, an all-time record. The staggering number of young children trekking to our country is a humanitarian catastrophe. The blame rests squarely with the Biden administration.

By loosening border security and all but inviting migrants to come illegally, administration officials have ironically put the youngest, most vulnerable migrants in harm’s way. While the administration cloaks its actions in the language of compassion, there is nothing compassionate about policies that allow children to fall into the clutches of human traffickers and sexual predators.

Unaccompanied children, many as young as eight or nine years old, face horrific conditions on their journeys north. They are often thirsty and tired, hot during the day and cold at night. Above all, they are afraid. Over 550 people, including many children, died trying to cross the border in F.Y. 2021 alone. Often, their only guidance comes from “coyotes,” unscrupulous human smugglers motivated by cash, who have been known to abandon children at the first sign of trouble.

Children making this passage frequently face violence at the hands of gangs and drug cartels. Sexual abuse against teenage women is so pervasive that many girls start taking birth control before starting their journeys, knowing they are likely to be assaulted.

Most unaccompanied children already have an adult relative north of the border. They are encouraged to make the trek by parents or extended family members, who think the kids will be briefly detained upon crossing the border and then reunited with relatives who have previously crossed the border illegally. But there is no guarantee those reunions will happen.

When unaccompanied alien children reach the United States, Customs and Border Patrol officers typically place them in a holding facility for transfer to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that runs UAC shelters. The Office of Refugee Resettlement eventually releases children to sponsors, but less than half go to a parent or legal guardian, and, according to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, only 80 percent are placed with a relative.

Some of the children without relatives go into the U.S. foster-care system, which pays foster parents more for taking in UACs than American-citizen children. Some of the unaccompanied children end up in the hands of traffickers posing as sponsors and are forced into slave labor or criminal gangs. In fact, the government has lost track of the whereabouts of a third of all UACs released to sponsors between January and May of last year.

The UAC phenomenon didn’t arise spontaneously. For 15 years, across administrations of both parties, the U.S. government has incentivized parents to separate from their children and send them on the dangerous journey to the border.

Congress created the UAC classification in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. But it was the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) that caused child-smuggling at the U.S. border to surge. Intended to prevent human trafficking, the law instead encouraged it by allowing unaccompanied children arriving at the border from countries other than Mexico or Canada to stay in the United States. By contrast, children from Mexico who do not fear returning to Mexico can be and are sent back within 48 hours of arrival.

The 2008 law created a perverse incentive for families around the globe, particularly in Central America, where many UACs are born. Once a child reaches the border, under the TVPRA, there is a good chance the U.S. government will essentially complete the traffickers’ job, taking the child into the interior United States and reuniting him with his family members—or, at least, people who claimed to be his family members. As a result, the number of UACs crossing the border rose steadily in the years after 2008, with UAC crossings reaching record levels in both 2016 and 2019.

Finally, in 2020, the Trump administration added unaccompanied children to the list of people who could be deported at the border. That policy, along with the pandemic, put a damper on crossings. Upon taking office, however, President Biden immediately ended Trump’s policy. He and his administration also signaled a willingness to tolerate illegal immigration by halting construction of the border wall, dramatically scaling back deportations, and temporarily ending the “Remain in Mexico” program, which fought asylum fraud by requiring people to wait in Mexico while their asylum petitions are adjudicated.

The result, in the six months stretching from March to August 2021, has been 92,000 UACs entering the U.S., shattering the previous annual record of 69,000. The data from 2022 suggests we are on track to break the all-time record high of UAC admissions set in 2021.

Biden administration officials might think they’re being compassionate by allowing this crisis to continue. But in reality, they are supporting smuggling cartels and, in some cases, providing fresh victims for predators. The truly compassionate solution is to strengthen the border such that illegal aliens would never dream of sending their children on the dangerous journey north.

Don Barnett is a retired IT professional and freelance writer who has been published widely on asylum and refugee issues.

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