Bipartisan Bill Aims to Deport Kids Quickly

Texas lawmakers John Cornyn and Henry Cuellar want to change a Bush-era trafficking law to speed up the deportation process for undocumented kids.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, introduced a bipartisan bill Tuesday that aims to quell the current border crisis by making it possible to send young, Central American migrants back to their home countries more quickly. To accomplish this, the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act proposes changes to a law signed by George W. Bush in 2008 that treats unaccompanied child migrants from Mexico and Canada differently than it does those from countries not directly bordering the U.S.

Included in the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act is a provision requiring that all undocumented kids from noncontiguous countries be transferred into the custody of the Health and Human Services Department no more than 72 hours after being apprehended at the border. Prior to 2008, all kids who crossed the border on their own were processed by the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency that includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The concern, at the time TVPRA was passed, was that DHS’ standard processing procedure was not equipped to ensure that kids with legitimate asylum claims weren’t being sent directly back into the dangerous situations they may have been fleeing.

Many point to this provision—which intentionally slowed the deportation process for unaccompanied minors—as one of the root causes of today’s crisis, which is expected to result in 90,000 children crossing the border alone this year.

To combat the unintended consequences of the TVPRA’s rules on unaccompanied minors, Cuellar and Cornyn’s bill proposes a change to the 2008 law, “treating all unaccompanied migrant children crossing our border with equality under the law, and allowing for voluntary reunification with family, whether they are from Mexico, Central America, or any other country.” The bipartisan bill also requires that kids who have asylum claims, parents living in the U.S., or other arguments as to why they should be allowed to stay in the country legally, be able to make their case to an immigration judge within a week of entering HHS custody, and would require immigration judges to make a ruling on a child’s status within 72 hours of hearing their claim.

Last week, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds for his administration’s response to the unprecedented flow of families and children across the Southwest border. On a call with members of the media, White House officials noted that part of the White House’s strategy for handling the border crisis included plans to work with Congress to make changes to the law with regards unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries—changes similar to those proposed by Cornyn and Cuellar Tuesday.

CNN noted Tuesday that the HUMANE Act currently has no Democratic sponsors in the Senate, but it does have a few influential Democratic detractors. Last week, ahead of the bill’s official introduction last week, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said he would only support changing the 2008 law if it meant children were required to have legal representation at immigration hearings and if the U.S. were required to have assurances about the “social infrastructure” of the countries to which these kids would be returned.

Beth Werlin is the deputy legal director of the American Immigration Council, one of the groups representing eight undocumented minors in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. that argues children should be required to have legal representation during immigration court proceedings. Last week, Werlin expressed relief to The Daily Beast that talk of changing the 2008 law to process and deport Central American kids as quickly as those from Mexico had not materialized into any real legislation.

“It’s a very scary proposition to think that kids who’ve just arrived and been through a very traumatic situation would have to articulate their claim…without the opportunity to consult with family, friends, or an attorney,” she said at the time.

The Cornyn-Cuellar proposal does not include a requirement for legal counsel in immigration court proceedings. In fact, when asked about Durbin’s suggestion that children be provided with a lawyer when they go to court, Cornyn said, “I think that would be a disaster for our immigration system.”

“Basically saying everybody who enters the country illegally is entitled to a taxpayer paid-for lawyer. And you not only have a right to a lawyer at the immigration judge stage but you also have a right to appellate review,” he continued. “I mean these can obviously go on for years and that would serve the goal of some of the people who want to come because it would be years before they were ever deported.”

On MSNBC Tuesday, the Texas lawmakers emphasized the urgency of passing the bill before members of Congress head home for the August recess.

“On the House side, we’re going to try to do our best to move this quickly,” Cuellar said. “We’ve got to do this before July 31, when we take off for our districts.”