By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The number of unaccompanied minors from Central America released to sponsors in Alabama this year has surpassed 2018 numbers with 771 through May.
With four more months in the fiscal year, 2019 will likely see a record number of the minors, most of them teenage males, in Alabama.
Unaccompanied minors in Alabama, per fiscal year*
|Year||Number of Minors|
*Fiscal years are October through September
**October 2018 through May 2019
Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement
They’ve become a talking point on the campaign trail for candidates running for U.S. Senate, several of them saying leaders in D.C. haven’t fixed immigration issues.
“Alabama has an illegal immigration crisis, and it is especially serious in some parts of our state, like Sand Mountain,” GOP Senate candidate and current Congressman Bradley Byrne told Alabama Daily News.
“Since our immigration system is so broken, these individuals are placed with family members throughout Alabama, rather than being held at or near the border. Then, insanely we ask the relative to make sure that these minors show up for immigration hearings which likely will lead to the minor’s deportation. That’s a real driver of our immigration crisis.”
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.
Nationwide this year, 46,312 minors have been placed with sponsors, up from 34,815 in all of 2018. Those in Alabama represent only about 1.6% of the total, but only 13 states have received more minors.
“(Immigration) is the No. 1 issue I hear about and it’s the No. 1 issue we have,” Republican Senate candidate and current Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said. “That’s why we have to build the border wall and support the president.”
Merrill said there isn’t an incentive to fix immigration because it’s a “cash cow” for politicians.
“Republicans are making a living off the immigration issue, raising money,” he said. “Democrats are making a living off the immigration issue, raising money.”
There is a need for immigrants, Merrill said, citing the state’s agriculture industry, but also “functional laws” that help people assimilate to the U.S. and Alabama.
“That’s not happening now,” he said.
More than half of the minors placed with sponsors in 2018 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.
Merrill said these teens aren’t trekking thousands of miles by themselves.
“There are people who are making money to bring them here,” Merrill said. And their parents are praying that when they get here, our system will take them in, he said.
“They know that if they can make it to the border, we’re going to take care of them, and that’s why they send them,” Merrill said.
“… There’s got to be a better system.”
Republican candidate and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said the minor situation “is a problem of our own creation.”
“We should stop all persons, including minors, from crossing the border,” he said. “That’s why we need a border wall. No other country in the world has this problem because they enforce their immigration laws. That’s the problem in Washington — politicians are not doing anything to correct the issue.”
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. Drought conditions are also a factor. Border Patrol made a record 133,000 apprehensions in May, the Associated Press reported. Vice President Mike Pence last week toured two detention facilities on the border.
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat seeking a full term next year, called the situation a humanitarian crisis.
“Given the deplorable conditions in which these children are being essentially warehoused at the border, I’m thankful that there are places where they can stay in a safe, clean environment while they await immigration court dates,” Jones told Alabama Daiily News. “But it is troubling that the overall number of children in this situation is increasing. They are victims of poverty and violence in their native countries and now are victims of a truly broken U.S. immigration system, one that has prioritized politics over action to prevent the humanitarian crisis we see today at the southern border.
“This further demonstrates the need for a permanent legislative solution that addresses the crisis in a humane way and also provides assistance to those communities and states that have stepped up to fill the urgent need to care for these vulnerable children.”
Individual counties with the most unaccompanied minors so far this year are Jefferson, 121; Marshall, 98; and Morgan, 55.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, for several years has said he’s concerned about the concentration of the minors in certain parts of the state, including rural areas, and the cost to school systems to educate students who often don’t speak English or Spanish.
“This continues to be a failure of our federal government,” Orr said last week. “They continue to overwhelm local schools with a disproportionate share of these children and expect the community to pick up the tab. These children should be more widely and evenly distributed across the country. The larger impact of an ever increasing number of non-English speaking students adversely affects test scores which leads to an even greater adverse economic impact. Despite my letters and calls to the federal government or their Office of Refugee Resettlement, nothing seems to change.”
DeKalb, Franklin and Tuscaloosa in previous years have seen a large number of the teens.
“We can not keep ignoring that the crisis on our border is spilling into our local schools and communities,” Republican candidate and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville said. “… It is absolutely shameful that the average tax payer and communities are burdened with dealing with this issue. Our politicians need to do their jobs and secure our border.”
Byrne is a co-sponsor of the Republican-proposed Fix the Immigration Loopholes Act.
“From increased law enforcement costs to (English as a second language) teachers in our schools, communities across Alabama continue to pay the price for the immigration crisis,” Byrne said. “Something must be done to take the burden off our rural communities and local residents. Unfortunately, a loophole in federal law requires minors from Central America to be treated differently than minors from Mexico. Central American minors are harder to deport. This makes no sense and is being exploited by people from those countries. We must close the loopholes.”
Republican candidate Arnold Mooney, a current state representative, said common sense policies to discourage illegal immigration are needed.
“First, Congress should fully fund construction of the president’s border wall,” Mooney said. “Second, Congress must end catch and release – the policy that forces our border agents to release illegal aliens into the United States. As part of ending that practice, we need to end the legal settlement that limits the time an alien can be held in detention and repeal the 2008 law that has actually encouraged child trafficking and human smuggling. Third, Congress must pass legislation to put an end to the frivolous asylum claims that are overwhelming the system.”
Mooney is also in favor of ending automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. whose parents are not citizens and requiring all employers to use E-Verify check the status of potential workers.
Byrne, Merrill, Moore, Tuberville and Mooney will be on the GOP primary ballot March 3. The winner faces Jones in November 2020.
This story was updated to include Mooney’s comments.