The border is in a crisis, a panel of experts organized by the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday, and Congress must act to stop it.
"There is a real crisis at our border," the panel's new report reads. "An unprecedented surge in family unit migration from Central America is overwhelming our border agencies and our immigration system. This crisis is endangering children."
That is the conclusion of a subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), a group of experts who advise the Secretary of Homeland Security on policy. In October of last year, then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen instructed the HSAC to look specifically at DHS policy on the care of children and families (members of which are known as "family units" in DHS terminology).
In response, the council created a 10-member, bipartisan panel to study the issue. The group includes two former CBP commissioners, two former DEA administrators, former DHS and DOJ officials, an immigration expert from the Bipartisan Policy Center, the CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and others.
Since Nielsen's letter, illegal immigration by families and unaccompanied minors has exploded. More than 100,000 people were apprehended crossing the border last month, of whom 65 percent were family units or unaccompanied kids. This trend is unlikely to abate—the HSAC report indicates that family unit apprehensions alone are expected to exceed 500,000 through September, the end of the fiscal year.
What is more, most of the children crossing, both with family members and unaccompanied, are young—the report estimates that 73 percent of those apprehended are age 12 or under. Many of these children are traumatized by the long, often perilous journey north, and may be exposed to diseases like measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Some are even sexually assaulted along the way.
This wave of children and families, many of whom are in need of psychological or physical care, has created an impossible situation for border enforcement officials.
"The unabated 600 percent surge of family units from Central America to our borders and properly caring for this population have overwhelmed the entire government and brought our border security and immigration management systems to the point of collapse," the report reads.
On any given day, the report notes, some 40 percent of CBP officials on the southwestern border are coping with the crisis. This diverts law enforcement resources away from coping with the many other challenges of the border, including drug enforcement and the diversion of dangerous individuals attempting to enter legally or illegally.
The stretching of resources has also forced the overstuffing of CBP facilities and, thanks to standing law, the summary release of migrants into the interior, where they often skip out on subsequent deportation hearings. Many delay their departure by claiming asylum when apprehended at or between ports of entry—the report notes that during the first quarter of FY19, less than 15 percent of asylum claims from central Americans (the population arriving most frequently) were granted.
Much of this crisis, the panel argues, is a function of conscious government policy.
"The dramatic increase in FMU apprehensions over the past year is directly linked to the U.S. government—executive, legislative, and judicial branches—creating 'pull factors' that incentivize migrants to bring a child with them to gain entry to and release into the U.S.," the report reads.
These pull factors include standing interpretations of law and legal cases, like the interpretation of the Flores settlement agreement which compels the release of minors into the interior.
To address the border crisis, the panel called for changes to both law and administrative policy. Most urgently, it recommends the setting up of three to four "regional processing centers," to which apprehended individuals can be diverted for appropriate care and processing. It also called for deploying non-law-enforcement officials to manage this process, so that CBP officers can return to their urgent duties protecting the border.
"There are countless examples of [CBP agents] valiant attempts to aid families and children who have entered our country illegally and still attempt to perform their law enforcement mission to protect our country," the report notes. "However, it is not humanly possible to do both."
Beyond these immediate staffing changes, the panel called for Congress to act: by expanding the immigration court system to ensure faster asylum processing, with turnaround times of no greater than a month; and by passing legislative fixes to alter Flores's constraints, amend other laws, and compel border crossers to seek asylum at points of entry rather than between them.
Additionally, they emphasize that a bilateral agreement with Mexico is "the single most important action capable of managing the movement of [families] from Central America." Such an agreement would see Mexico act as a "safe third country," hosting asylum seekers instead of those individuals crossing into the United States to be held in already overcrowded CBP facilities. The HSAC panel also called for a separate asylum processing facility to be set up in Guatemala, for similar purposes.
What is clear, the panel concluded, is that Congress needs to act now before the crisis gets worse.
"The surge in family unit migration will continue to soar, endangering more and more children making the treacherous 2,000 mile trek to our border and crossing illegally into the U.S. at dangerous and remote areas between ports of entry (POE), until the dynamics causing this trend are changed. This change requires emergency action by the U.S. Government," the report reads.