Congress is on recess, but the crisis of unaccompanied minors is still here

What now for the kids at the heart of the crisis?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - This week, the halls of the U.S. Capitol are empty. Members of Congress and their staff have gone home for the annual August recess.

But for hundreds of cities and towns across the country, the question of how best to deal with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have fled Central America for the U.S. isn’t going anywhere.

The number of minors from Central America who have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been increasing since 2011, but hit a crisis point this year.

Gang violence in Central America has made life increasingly dangerous for kids and teenagers in El Salvador, Guatemala and especially Honduras.

You might recall that the President requested $3.7 billion to care for unaccompanied minors, deport adults who migrate with children, and pay for more immigration judges and border agents. 

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Under pressure from its most conservative members, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed its own bill in the last remaining hours before the recess but with a total less than a fifth of what the president requested. The bulk of that bill pays for more border security and would make it easier to deport Central American child migrants. But the legislation has no practical chance of passing -  the Senate will not take it up and the president has vowed to veto it.

That means that the close to 63,000 unaccompanied children who have been apprehended at the border since October of this year are now stuck in a kind of limbo. The majority haven’t even had their cases filed in immigration court yet.

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As of June 30, less than one third of the unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border this year have had their cases filed in court, and less than 5 percent of those cases have actually been reviewed by an immigration judge. 

The federal government isn’t required to provide legal counsel for these kids when their cases go before an immigration judge, and most can’t afford to hire their own lawyers. When firms do provide pro bono counsel, it makes a difference—more than 6 in 10 children with legal representation in immigration court end up being allowed to stay in the U.S., compared to 4 in 10 among children without a lawyer. 

There’s one group that can’t afford to put off dealing with the challenge like Congress—the teachers and principals at the schools where many of these kids will start in the coming weeks. To learn more about how one school, just a few miles from the empty U.S. Capitol building, is dealing with this new challenge, tune into this week’s DecodeDC podcast. 

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