The Trump administration is weighing a new policy that would fast-track the deportation of thousands of Central American teenagers who arrived at the southern border, unaccompanied by adults.
According to two sources with knowledge of the developing policy proposal, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to avoid creating a new protected class of undocumented immigrants, given how politically difficult it has been for the administration to unwind another program – DACA, which protected young people brought by adults to the country illegally when they were children.
This new policy would call for expedited deportation of another group — the more than 150,000 children who arrived at the southern border alone, escaping violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Under the plan being discussed, teens in this group would be sent back to their countries when they turn 18 under a fast-track deportation, which means they would not see an immigration judge first.
“This administration still has its hands somewhat tied with what it can do with that population,” said a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. “Because the law, especially for the children, doesn’t give the administration a lot of flexibility with how to deal with unaccompanied children.”
The proposal is being drafted via memos circulated between the Justice and Homeland Security Departments. It has set off an aggressive debate inside these departments among staff charged with reducing illegal immigration, government lawyers who worry about legal exposure and political operatives who see the public controversy this could fuel.
“This is being viewed as a way to say that there will not need to be a new DACA,” said a former U.S. Justice Department official who is familiar with the current planning. “But this is far from decided. The concern is that most people at DOJ know this will likely be viewed as illegal and do not want to have to defend this in court if they can avoid it.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on the record. DHS and the White House did not immediately respond to questions. A U.S. official reached by McClatchy Wednesday said the administration’s priorities are unchanged.
“The Trump administration’s commitment to securing the southern border remains the same,” said the administration official. “All Americans deserve responsible immigration reform, which will include massive border security and border enforcement.”
Minors, unaccompanied by adults, have flocked from Central America to the U.S. border for years. But in 2014, there was a surge. That year, nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — flooded the U.S. border, overwhelming the Border Patrol and creating a humanitarian crisis that Washington, then under former President Barack Obama, struggled to handle.
Since then, Homeland Security has referred more than 150,000 children to an agency inside the U.S. Health and Human Services Department called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for unaccompanied children after they are apprehended at the border. Mostly, these children are transferred to relatives in the United States, to sponsors, or the shelters.
A large percentage of those kids, between 63 percent and 73 percent depending on the year, were between 15 and 17 when they made the long journey.
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said most of them now are subject to such a policy change.
“They’re turning 18 now,” Capps said.
Sessions blamed DACA for encouraging the surge of unaccompanied Central American minors. President Donald Trump echoed those remarks in his own statement after ending DACA, saying the increase in unaccompanied minors also contributed to gang activity.
“The temporary implementation of DACA by the Obama administration, after Congress repeatedly rejected this amnesty-first approach, also helped spur a humanitarian crisis — the massive surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America, including, in some cases, young people who would become members of violent gangs throughout our country, such as MS-13,” Trump said.
Under a 2008 law, Mexican and Canadian children who arrive at the U.S. border are quickly sent back home, and the U.S. government works with those nations’ governments on the repatriation. The process is different for unaccompanied kids from other countries. So while Mexican children are subject to expedited deportation, Central American minors are not. They are transferred into the custody of the Health and Human Services Department.
Since being sworn into office, the Trump administration has moved quickly to expand the number of immigrants who could be detained and deported. In January, Trump signed two executive orders that expand the use of expedited removals and warned that the parents of unaccompanied children would be subject to criminal prosecution if they paid human traffickers to bring their children across the border.
In June, federal immigrants agents began detaining the parents and relatives of the unaccompanied minors as part of a new program called the Unaccompanied Alien Children Human Smuggling Disruption Initiative. Last month, DHS canceled the approvals of 2,700 kids who had been cleared conditionally and allowed to come to the United States via a legal program for Central American minors aimed at mitigating the humanitarian crisis.
Leon Fresco, who was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation during Obama’s tenure, said such a policy targeting the teens could be quickly blocked by the courts soon after it’s announced.
“And the question is whether the administration wants to add this to the travel ban, sanctuary cities, Byrne Jag grants, and DACA repeal to the issues they would want the Supreme Court to have to decide this year,” Fresco said.