Thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied children flooding across the U.S.-Mexico have created a vast processing backlog at U.S. Border Patrol stations, complicated in part by a 2008 law, immigration attorneys told NBC 7.
The government is required to act in the best interest of the unaccompanied minors and cannot deport them under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
The law – passed during the Bush administration – is designed to protect child victims of sex trafficking.
But the measure is being applied to more than 52,000 lone child immigrants from Central America apprehended at the border since October.
The children now have a right to their day in court, regardless of immigration status.
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“It’s not like U.S. can say, ‘Take them to the border, to Mexico, and dump them on Mexico.’ That’s impossible,” said San Diego immigration attorney Lilia Velasquez.
Instead, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must hold these children humanely until the courts can find a suitable relative or adult who can sponsor them. If an adult cannot be found, they stay in a refugee shelter.
However, with such large numbers coming in at the Texas border, the HHS is having problems housing the detainees and finding personnel to process them.
The Border Patrol is alleviating some of that bottleneck by sending undocumented migrant families to Southern California for processing.
“Now the effects today are that these children from South America or Central America understand that they're not gonna necessarily be sent back right away to their home country,” said San Diego immigration attorney Chris Macaraeg. “There is a process in the United States for them to seek out any kind of benefits."
For example, those children can seek political asylum to escape the conditions of their home country – a process which could take years, said Valasquez.
Since immigration cases go through civil court, not criminal, a child will not be appointed an attorney. However, he or she is granted time to find one, a judge can then continue the case for another year until an attorney is secured.
If that day in court comes and the child loses, he or she can appeal it, another lengthy procedure.
The immigrant children who are ordered to be deported must then go through a long repatriation process with their own consulate. The exact time it takes varies from country to country.