The stories were harrowing, and they were everywhere: accounts of parents paying smugglers thousands of dollars, of Central American children trekking cross-country with coyotes, of kids crossing the southwest border alone and then spending days in overcrowded detention centers.
Last summer, these tales dominated the political media—and the July congressional session. A year later, the plight of young immigrants has barely been a blip on the larger D.C. radar. The numbers have decreased, and so too have the calls for action and the volume of hearings on the Hill. And—Donald Trump aside—the immigration issue in general isn't getting the same attention now as it did in recent years.
President Obama referred to last year's border crisis as "an urgent humanitarian situation." A rush of unaccompanied minors were arriving on U.S. soil, in part fleeing the escalating violence, gang recruitment, and economic disparities that plagued Central America's Northern Triangle. Members spent the summer debating the $3.7 billion emergency supplemental request Obama made a year ago this week to attempt to curb the uptick in child arrivals.
The administration has increased the number of shelters and beds for unaccompanied minors. Images of young kids crossing the border have faded from the front pages and from cable news as their numbers decreased.
But immigration advocates warn that the problem isn't over. "It's not like the issue has gone away—in fact, anything but," said Wendy Young, Kids in Need of Defense president.
At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday to review last year's border crisis, Philip Miller—assistant director of field operations, enforcement, and removal operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—said without funding requested by the Obama administration, he "would have fear that we would begin to backslide and lose some of the gains that we have experienced in the past year."
Since last summer, more children have reportedly been intercepted before they reach the United States, and the poverty and violence driving people to leave hasn't dissipated.
The initial uptick began in March 2014, when more than 7,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the southwest border. These numbers increased through June, as more than 10,600 came to the United States, then dropped off for the remainder of fiscal 2014, according to the Homeland Security Department.
The month-to-month totals have remained steady. In March, a little over 2,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the southwest border; in June, more than 2,900 childhood arrivals came across the same border, according to preliminary numbers that U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided to National Journal. (The numbers are considered final after they are checked again at the end of the fiscal year.)
Experts say a variety of factors contributed to this change: Additional manpower was dispatched to the border. The administration began a media campaign in the Northern Triangle. And the U.S. worked with Mexico and Central America in an attempt to curb the influx of unaccompanied minors, according to a Migration Policy Institute report titled "Unaccompanied Child Migration to the United States: The Tension Between Protection and Prevention."
But the report raises skepticism that these efforts will yield lasting change: "Yet while these measures successfully slowed the pace of child and family flows, they have a limited focus: on deterrence and enforcement at the U.S. border and along migrant transit routes."
On Capitol Hill, the immigration debate has been fairly quiet this session. Obama's executive order on immigration—which would provide temporary deportation relief and work permits to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants—is winding its way through the court system. And many Republicans still believe that the Obama administration's policies have made the situation worse.
"As President Obama has taken actions to weaken the enforcement of our immigration laws and provide benefits to unlawful immigrants, word has spread around the globe that our immigration laws can be violated with impunity," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement to National Journal.
Goodlatte—who was a member of a House Republican working group to address the border crisis—pointed to two bills that his committee approved this year. One helps ensure unaccompanied minors are returned home safely, while the other refers to asylum reforms.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who also was part of the working group, told National Journal that the situation has not been fixed. He said he wants to see a very detailed plan from the administration.
"I think some of us would be helpful if there was a real aggressive effort to deal with these narco-human-trafficking gangs," the Florida Republican said.
For the administration's part, Obama's annual budget request asked for $1 billion to go toward helping alleviate the economic disparities and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Under Obama's plan, over $400 million would go toward prosperity and regional integration, more than $300 million to enhanced security, and nearly $250 million toward improved governance, according to a White House fact sheet titled "Promoting Prosperity, Security, and Good Governance in Central America." The administration also has put out an overall strategy on Central America.
Additionally, late last year, the administration began allowing parents from the Northern Triangle who are legally in the United States to request that their children still living in their home country can come to America as refugees.
But structural change in the region is needed to really address the push factors that make parents send their children on journeys to the United States, according to Marc Rosenblum, MPI U.S. Immigration Policy Program deputy director. And the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have come together to create a plan of attack, called the "Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle," which was released in November.
The only way to really halt the flow of migrants crossing the border, Rosenblum said, is: "Give people less reasons to flee."
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