By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. and WASHINGTON, D.C. — As President Donald Trump pushes for a wall, some Alabama Republican leaders want changes in a federal program that’s seen thousands of teen immigrants apprehended at the southern border placed in the state.
Most of these unaccompanied minors come from Central America. Now, GOP proposals would overhaul how teens from those conflict-ridden countries could apply for asylum to the U.S.
“There are few better examples of how our immigration system is broken than unaccompanied alien minors,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, said in a statement to Alabama Daily News. “Rather than keep these individuals close to the border or process them for deportation, (unaccompanied minors) are primarily placed with family members or ‘loved ones,’ including those unlawfully in the country.”
The guardian is supposed to ensure the minor attends future immigration proceedings, Byrne said.
“You do not have to be an expert in immigration law to know this creates bad incentives,” he said. “Many (minors) simply disappear into the United States. Thus, you have a situation where bad law is putting a strain on state and local services and increasing illegal immigration.”
When minors not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian are apprehended at the border, federal law requires that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, feed, shelter and provide medical care to them. The office then releases them to sponsors — usually family members — while the minors await immigration proceedings.
In fiscal year 2018, 34,518 such minors were placed with sponsors nationwide. More than half of them were from Guatemala, 26 percent were from Honduras and 12 percent were from El Salvador. About 72 percent were 15 or older and 71 percent were male.
Byrne said federal statistics show that in 2018, nearly half of all immigration court removal orders for minors were ordered in absentia, meaning the minors were not in attendance.
“It’s hard to argue that an immigration system where half of the parties fail to appear is anything but broken and in a state of crisis,” Byrne said.
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, said the current placement of unaccompanied minors is troubling.
“This system has incentivized parents to send their children across dangerous territory in Central America, to the unprotected southern border of the United States,” Aderholt said. “Once in the U.S., these children are put into the custody of (Health and Human Services), which places them into the custody of family members here in America, even if those family members are themselves here illegally.
“Those children, and their sponsors, then often quit communicating with the U.S. government. This system has also placed a heavy burden on our state and local education budgets with the influx of more than 730 children to Alabama last year and well more than 3,000 since 2014.”
The 730 that came to Alabama last year represents only about 2 percent of the total, but some officials have noted that other states with larger populations or closer to the southern border have received fewer. Only 12 states received more unaccompanied minors in 2018.
Because the minors are usually released to family members, they usually to go to areas with higher Hispanic populations. In Alabama, those tend to be areas with agricultural industries, including chicken processing plants. Many of the minors in recent years found sponsors in DeKalb, Franklin, Marshall, Morgan, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has previously voiced concern not only about the minors’ placement nationally, but also concentrations in rural areas and smaller cities around the state.
“It makes it hard for those local communities to absorb those newly placed young people,” Orr said recently.
In 2017, Decatur City Schools officials told the Decatur Daily that many of the teens enter the system with little education from their home countries. And if they enter school in the ninth grade, they’re expected to graduate within four years. If they don’t, or if they drop out, it counts against the system’s rankings, as do the students’ standardized tests scores.
A Franklin County school leader told the Daily that after a few years in school, the students often stop attending.
Poor school rankings hurt a community’s ability to attract new residents and businesses, Orr said.
“It’s not the fault of the children, but when you concentrate them in one area like Decatur, they can’t be easily absorbed,” Orr said.
The Alabama State Department of Education is asking for a significant increase in funding for its English language learners, from $130 per student to $400, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said last week.
“The most difficult learners that are coming in now are coming in from Guatemala,” Mackey said after a recent budget hearing at the State House. Mackey was speaking of immigrant students in general, not specifically the unaccompanied minors. He said many lack formal education and often speak local dialects, not Spanish.
“So, they would be behind if they were in Spanish-speaking classes,” Mackey said.
Orr, chairman of the Senate education budget committee, said a “substantial” increase in ELL funding would be needed in 2020.
There’s also concerns about the minors’ welfare and potential for exploitation, Orr said.
In 2017, the Alabama Department of Labor fined chicken processor Gemstone Foods $64,200 for violations related to a dozen teen workers at a Decatur facility, the Decatur Daily reported. The youngest was 13.
The teens’ documentation showed large discrepancies in age, “so egregious that a layperson could identify these documents were forged,” according to an Alabama Department of Labor report.
Crisis in Central America
Humanitarian agencies cite high rates of poverty and crime, gang violence and extortion and domestic and sexual abuse as reasons people are fleeing Central America.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, said the U.S. is a country of immigrants with a proud legacy of protecting families fleeing violence and persecution.
“But during my trip to the border last July, I saw the Trump administration’s cruel policies at work: children being separated from their parents, asylum seekers prosecuted en masse and families being in held in what I can only describe as inhumane conditions.
“It is critically important that state entities are given the resources necessary to provide adequate, humane care for unaccompanied minors in the care of Alabama residents, many of which have faced unimaginable circumstances before arriving in the United States.”
However, Democrats and Republicans alike seem to agree a change in policy is needed to stem the influx of young refugees at the border.
As part of his “compromise” offer to re-open the government in late January, Trump included the “Central American Minor Protection Act,” a Democratic proposal requiring minors to apply for asylum to the U.S. while still in their home countries, rather than allowing them to claim asylum at the border.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced Trump’s legislation to “address the humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) coming to the United States.” The bill would require in-country processing of minors at U.S. consulates and embassies in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
A release from Shelby’s office noted that a corresponding change in the asylum law would be required to “reduce the unauthorized flow or successfully mitigate the humanitarian crisis” and that the “proper return of those who circumvent the process by coming to the United States without authorization” would also be needed.
The immigration advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense criticized the proposals.
“(They) places severe limits on the ability of vulnerable refugees and children to access various humanitarian protections that currently exist for those fleeing severe harm,” KIND said in a written statement. “Specifically, the bill forces an individual to apply for only one form of immigration relief even if the individual is eligible by law for multiple forms of immigration relief…
“Overall, the bill completely undermines asylum and trafficking protections for Central American children, particularly the most vulnerable children who do not have a parent or guardian in the United States, cannot afford the processing fee, and cannot wait in the country where they fear persecution, or even in a neighboring country, to receive protection.”
Census data from 2017 put the state’s Hispanic population at about 4.3 percent, though it’s significantly higher in some counties. In north Alabama’s Marshall County, it was almost 14 percent.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth is from Marshall County.
“Being forced to house and accept teens who cross our nation’s border illegally puts an undue burden on Alabama taxpayers and strains our already underfunded education and social welfare systems,” Ainsworth said recently about unaccompanied minors.
He also cited concerns about the impact on schools.
“… Before courts intervened, Alabama once had the nation’s strongest law combating illegal immigration, so perhaps these students would be better served in one of the seven more liberal states, like California or Massachusetts, that have officially declared themselves as ‘sanctuary’ states.”