Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both promised not to deport children at the Democratic debate, which was aimed at Latinos and hosted by Univision. Saying anything else on the nation’s most-watched Spanish-language news source would have been political suicide.
But those promises covered only children who are already living in the United States. The two Democratic presidential candidates outlined very different approaches for another group of immigrant children urgently seeking protection—the thousands of unaccompanied minors who arrive at the U.S.-Mexican border every month looking for asylum.
“I said welcome those children into this country,” Sanders said, referencing the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have fled violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in recent years. “Secretary Clinton said send them back. That's a difference.”
Clinton said the characterization was unfair, but she stopped far short of saying those children should be admitted.
“I did say we needed to be very concerned about little children coming to this country on their own, very often, many of them not making it, and when they got here, they needed, as I have argued for, legal counsel, due process, to make a decision,” she said.
Last month the Border Patrol detained more than 3,000 unaccompanied minors, or “unaccompanied alien children,” as the Department of Homeland Security likes to call them. In December, almost 6,800 were detained. The number of parents, mostly mothers and their children, coming to the U.S. seeking refuge has also increased since 2014.
Shortly after Sanders delivered his answer on unaccompanied minors, Univision took a commercial break. When the debate came back on the air, moderator Jorge Ramos returned to immigration and began questioning Clinton.
Trying to get her to answer, Ramos rephrased his question several times. He wound up asking something different from what Sanders had answered—whether Clinton would deport children who are already here.
“I will not deport children,” she said. “I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either.”
That answer made no mention of accompanied minors seeking asylum. Clinton’s position is that providing them legal representation makes it likelier that they will be allowed to stay.
When unaccompanied minors are detained by the Border Patrol they are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which focuses on the care and placement of the children before they stand before an immigration judge.
The majority of the unaccompanied children end up facing immigration judges in deportation proceedings by themselves, without legal representation. A senior Justice Department official this week argued 3- and 4-year-olds can understand immigration law and defend themselves in court. But of course that’s not what the court records show.
A think tank at Syracuse University analyzed a decade’s worth of court records and found that whether an unaccompanied minor had a lawyer was “the single most important factor influencing the case's outcome.”
In 73% of the cases in which an unaccompanied child was represented by a lawyer, the court allowed the child to remain in the United States. When a child had no legal representation, about 15% were allowed to stay in the U.S., according to immigration court records reviewed by Syracuse University.
The study found that only a third of unaccompanied minors were represented by a lawyer.
Many Latinos sympathize with these unaccompanied children because they themselves, or relatives, have fled unstable Latin American countries. Demographers predict Salvadorans will soon replace Cubans as third-largest group of Latinos in the U.S., after Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, and many of them fled during a civil war in the 1980s. Today, gang violence has pushed the country to a level of violence it has not seen since the worst days of that war.
Guatemalans are the sixth-largest group of Hispanic origin in the U.S., followed by people from Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Suffice to say, many Latinos personally know what’s it’s like to flee violence. And many of these unaccompanied minors are coming to meet loved ones already in the U.S in the first place.
Clinton’s plan raises structural questions, including who is going to pay for the legal representation and where the immigration courts will find the resources to deal with the cases.
Sanders’ blanket plan to welcome unaccompanied minors is music to the ears of many Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans in the U.S. But Sanders hasn’t said how he would get his proposal past Republicans who want to expedite the deportation proceedings for these children. Then there’s another question: What do you do when more kids come, or are sent by their parents, because they're guaranteed to get in?
In the meantime, thousands of unaccompanied minors, as well as mothers and their children, continue to come to the U.S. to seek asylum. So many are waiting in immigration detention centers that it’s become a lucrative business, and it’s only getting better.