More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the U.S.- Mexico border since October. Most of these young people are fleeing Central American countries where gang violence is rampant and economic conditions are desperate. U.S. law currently allows children from these countries to avoid immediate deportation and stay with family members while awaiting court dates. Critics argue this only encourages more illegal immigration and unfairly burdens American taxpayers. But child advocates say young migrants deserve protection from serious harm that would result from deportation. Debate over what to do about the surge in illegal child migration.


  • Fawn Johnson Correspondent, National Journal.
  • Steven Camarota Director of research, Center for Immigration Studies.
  • Wendy Young President, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which helps provide legal representation for unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the U.S.
  • Adam Isacson Senior associate, regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The number of children detained at the U.S. border with Mexico has surged to more than 50,000 since October. That number is expected to reach 90,000 by the end of the year. President Obama will ask Congress today for billions of dollars in emergency funding to address the crisis.

  • 10:07:20

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for a look at what's behind the surge in child migrants and different strategies to deal with it, Wendy Young of Kids In Need Of Defense, Fawn Johnson of National Journal magazine and Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. I know there are many strong feelings out there. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.

  • 10:08:02

    MR. STEVEN CAMAROTAIt's good to be with you.

  • 10:08:02

    MS. WENDY YOUNGThank you. Nice to see you.

  • 10:08:02

    MS. FAWN JOHNSONHi, Diane.

  • 10:08:04

    REHMGood to have you here. Fawn Johnson, what is causing this surge?

  • 10:08:09

    JOHNSONWell, I wish I could give you a definitive answer, Diane, but we don't actually know. And there's a lot of speculation out there and there's also a lot of arguing. What we do know, though, is that the surge of the last six months of unaccompanied minors is unexpected. It is unexpected enough that last month, the Department of Homeland Security had to readjust its projections for how many would be coming, which is previously they'd said there would be something like 72,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the border this year.

  • 10:08:39

    JOHNSONAnd then, about a month ago, they upped it to 90,000 and then for the next year, they're saying 140,000. So what we know is that this was not something that is a steady increase. There's definitely a surge and there's a lot of debate about what is causing that.

  • 10:09:00

    REHMSo what you're telling us is that this has gone on previously and it's gone on somewhat steadily.

  • 10:09:09


  • 10:09:09

    REHMThese unaccompanied minors.

  • 10:09:12

    JOHNSONYeah. And it's something that they've been keeping track of for years and I have heard anecdotally, although I don’t have a ton of data, that the number of just undocumented immigrants, not necessarily minors, but everybody coming from Central American countries has been on the increase. A slow increase, but an increase for the past five or six years.

  • 10:09:32

    REHMBut how have we handled unaccompanied minors in the past?

  • 10:09:38

    JOHNSONThey have always been given different treatment that someone who has come as an adult. But in 2008, some of the law changed a little bit. There was a human trafficking law that passed the Congress unanimously. This was not a controversial thing. That requires that unaccompanied minors, if you are determined to be unaccompanied and an alien, you have a certain amount of protections that come to you.

  • 10:10:08

    JOHNSONThe Border Patrol needs to access whether or not you were brought here in a trafficking type situation, which could be your basic coyote or it could be something more nefarious than that. They need to make sure that you can willingly go back home. How they determine that is a matter of debate. And if you are not from Mexico -- because Mexico borders the United States and we have some special repatriation agreements with Mexico through the Department of State.

  • 10:10:35

    JOHNSONSo if you're from another country, then the officials are not allowed to send those minors back to their home country until they have gone through an adjudication process, which requires an adjudicator, some sort of, you know, judge type person, not necessarily a judge, to go through and find out why the child is there, whether they face some credible fear of harm or threat back in their home country.

  • 10:10:59

    JOHNSONAnd then, after that takes place, they can send them back to the home country.

  • 10:11:05

    REHMNow, some of these young children have been accompanied by adults. And what happens to them?

  • 10:11:15

    JOHNSONWell, they are treated as a family unit under regular detention and Border Patrol situations. They're generally, you know, kept together as a family unit. Sometimes what will happen is they will separate the women from the men in terms of any kind of initial detention facilities, but they are treated as a unit and they are also deported as a unit, if need be.

  • 10:11:38

    REHMAnd there is an expectation that President Obama is going to ask for more money and possibly to change the law. What's that about?

  • 10:11:53

    JOHNSONWell, what people have been looking at, the way that this human trafficking law was passed, as essentially a loophole for people who are not from a contiguous country, so a country that doesn't border directly the United States because there aren't enough adjudicators and because the law also requires that children who are not from Mexico, that the Health and Human Service Department has to see if they can find a parent or some sort of relative in the country to house them with.

  • 10:12:25

    JOHNSONThat person could be undocumented. But the idea is to unify these kids with whoever could take care of them, which certainly nobody would disagree with. But then, what happens is because the processing takes too long, it's very entirely possible that these kids will just evaporate into the United States. And so it's considered something of a loophole because that doesn't happen with children from Mexico.

  • 10:12:45

    JOHNSONThey have an agreement with the Mexican government to send them back to whatever child welfare system they have there. So I think the administration is trying to make sure that the idea that this is loophole is closed. I think that the optics are just as important as the actual law because, you know, this is all founded on rumor and so we would assume that some people might realize that if they can close that loophole and actually know once you get here, you can't stay here, maybe that'll stop some of those people from coming over the border.

  • 10:13:18

    REHMFawn Johnson, correspondent for National Journal magazine. She's reported on immigration issues since the Clinton administration. Wendy Young, how do you feel about the idea of changing the law?

  • 10:13:36

    YOUNGWell, the protections that were enacted in 2008 as part of the trafficking act were enacted for a very good reason, which is children who are travelling alone, leaving their families, their communities, going across international borders and seeking entrance in the United States, there should be an immediate red flag there that something is terribly wrong at home for a child to be traveling alone.

  • 10:13:57

    YOUNGAnd these protections that are in the law are there for a good reason. We're recognizing the unique vulnerability of children who are migrating along so we are very concerned about the notion that some of these protections would be rolled back. It is true that this crisis is highlighting some weaknesses in the system right now.

  • 10:14:17

    YOUNGFor example, the immigration courts have been horribly under resourced for many years and they do have a very large backlog of immigration cases, almost 400,000 case awaiting adjudication. So we would support doing more timely adjudications in these children's cases, but that has to be done in the context of a full, fair and objective hearing because our work, providing legal representation to these children, has really underscored to us that you can't expect a child to go through any kind of expedited screening.

  • 10:14:49

    YOUNGThey need time. They're confused. They're afraid. They're traumatized by the journey and they're children. They simply lack the capacity...

  • 10:14:58

    REHMHow did they get here, Wendy?

  • 10:15:00

    YOUNGThey basically get here any way that they can. And the trip itself can be very, very dangerous for these children. Sometimes they ride atop trains, for example, clinging to the top, clinging to the sides, which is physically very dangerous. Very often, they're smuggled or trafficked and they're abused by the criminal gang that are organizing that kind of movement of children.

  • 10:15:24

    REHMWhen you think about these children coming here alone, pardon me, are there some parents who are deliberating sending their children off alone because they assume that they can get into the U.S.?

  • 10:15:47

    YOUNGVery often, there is family involved in the decision to send the child out. But I will say that these are desperate families making very desperate choices in many, many cases. The violence in Central America has been on the rise and it is specifically targeting children. This is violence that's afflicted on children by gangs and narco traffickers who are literally taking over these countries.

  • 10:16:09

    REHMSo you're saying that many of these children are coming from Central America, not just from Mexico, though that's how they get in.

  • 10:16:21

    YOUNGThe surge in numbers is primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and el Salvador. Honduras is the murder capital of the world and Guatemala and el Salvador are in the top five. And that is, again, because of these organized criminal cartels that are targeting children, going into their schools, going into their homes and forcing them to flee. This is more of a refugee situation than it is an immigration issue.

  • 10:16:44

    REHMAnd Wendy, I know that your group works with these young people. They really do share some common experiences.

  • 10:16:57

    YOUNGThey do. What we hear consistently from the children that we work with is the fear of violence in the home country. These kids don't necessarily want to come to the United States, but they and their families feel that they have no choice. And we've worked with many girls, for example, that are reporting sexual violence in the home country, gangs gang-raping them.

  • 10:17:17

    YOUNGAnd the family will tell the child, go, because that's the only way we can protect you. We've had other families say to us, I would rather see my child die on the way to the United States than on my doorstep. It is a tragic situation that's unfolding in Central America.

  • 10:17:32

    REHMAnd what are conditions like at the detention centers once they get here?

  • 10:17:39

    YOUNGWell, certainly, the system that was in place to care for unaccompanied children before this increase in numbers started is starting to implode. It really was not designed for these numbers. It was designed for more like 6 to 8,000 children a year. And so what you're seeing is children backing up in border patrol stations at our border in very substandard conditions for children.

  • 10:18:01

    REHMLike what?

  • 10:18:02

    YOUNGWell, kids crowded into a holding cell without room barely to lay down to sleep. These are facilities that are set up for short term custody of individuals so even the necessary things like food, blankets were not in place for these children. So we're seeing terrible conditions in our own Border Patrol stations.

  • 10:18:24

    YOUNGAnd HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, has been trying to build its system to accommodate these children more appropriately.

  • 10:18:30

    REHMWendy Young, she's president of Kids In Need Of Defense. They help provide legal representation for unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the U.S. When we come back, you'll hear from Steven Camarota. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the growing, indeed surging number of children at the US border with Mexico, now standing at more than 50,000 since October. And that number expected to reach more than 90,000 by the end of the year. You've heard from Fawn Johnson of National Journal who's been reporting on this issue. Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense. That organization acronym KIND was founded by Angelina Jolie and the Microsoft Corporation.

  • 10:20:52

    REHMAnd now we turn to Steven Camarota. He's director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. Steven, we've heard these young people are coming from very tough countries, tough environments in their home countries. Why shouldn't we try to help them?

  • 10:21:17

    CAMAROTAWell, let's talk briefly about the law in question here. The law in 2008 was designed specifically -- although it ended up being very poorly crafted -- to deal with trafficking. Trafficking has a specific definition which assumes that you are being brought into the country for prostitution, forced labor, other forms of exploitation. It's not at all clear that the law applies to the vast majority of these kids as it is their parents who have typically paid the smuggler, not someone who's bringing them in for an exploitive circumstance.

  • 10:21:46

    CAMAROTAIt's also not clear the law applies -- and in fact I think most people think it probably does not apply to the roughly half who are being apprehended with their parents. The parents and the child are turning themselves into the border patrol. In that context you have an adult. You have an adult then and as a family unit you can quickly send them back to the country. You don't need to worry that they're being trafficked unless you assume that the parent themselves is trafficking them, which would not generally ever assume to be the case.

  • 10:22:14

    CAMAROTASo the administration has chosen to interpret the law in a certain way and word's gotten back. That and the general discussion of legalization in the United States and that -- and the administration has a policy -- a stated policy of not deporting people who came before the age of 18 -- 16. It's referred to as DACA. It's Deferred Action for Minors (sic) . Now in theory, these kids should not be able to get that DACA but everyone's aware of it. It's been well covered in the media in Central America.

  • 10:22:44

    CAMAROTAThe thing about Central America you have to keep in mind is it's been poor and dysfunctional for a very long time, but this flow is only the last two years at this scale specifically of the children. There's not systematic evidence that suddenly violence has massively spiked. Rather conditions have been difficult for a long time but they recognize this loophole now exists. And so people are sending their children into the United States as a consequence.

  • 10:23:08

    REHMSo what do you think ought to be done with these unaccompanied minors?

  • 10:23:15

    CAMAROTAWell, we have to keep in mind that whatever decision we make has consequences. And I think that a lot of these kids have sympathetic stories. But if we allow them to stay, which is essentially that the administration's is, it says they won't but we all know people don't generally show up for their hearings. And all previous experiences suggest that once you release someone into the United States, the possibility that they'll ever be sent home is at or near zero. So we are allowing, so far, them to stay.

  • 10:23:40

    CAMAROTAIf we continue that policy, we have to accept responsibility that people will continue to come if you allow them in. That means hundreds of thousands of additional minors and adults will continue to flow into the United States with important implications for American workers and taxpayers and the rule of law in American sovereignty. If on the other hand we decide to send them back, that also has consequences that we have to think about.

  • 10:24:03

    CAMAROTAAs I said though, the law is being interpreted here by the administration in the broadest possible way. Someone who's apprehended with a parent and all the young children -- we're not getting a lot of unaccompanied seven-year-olds, it certainly happens -- but most of the people in that age group are being arrested with a parent who can speak for the child and talk about their condition and can be quickly processed and sent back to their home country or move through the process if we think they have a credible fear of persecution.

  • 10:24:29

    CAMAROTASince in general people are fleeing poverty and social dysfunction, they don't meet the criteria generally assumed for either refugees or asylees. That deals specifically with facing actual persecution because of your race, your religion, membership in a particular social group. And that's not what here. These are kids who are seeking and their parents are seeking a better life. However understandable that is, that's not the definition of a refugee or an asylee.

  • 10:24:55

    REHMSteven Camarota. He's with the Center for Immigration Studies. How much have and has anyone even estimated how much it costs to keep each child here in the U.S.?

  • 10:25:15

    CAMAROTAWell, we have some idea, right. We know that we spend about $12,000 a year on the average in the United States for each child for education. We know that it costs for health insurance somewhere around 5 to $7,000 a years to insure a child in the United States. So these are some basics, then you have everything else, basic infrastructure costs.

  • 10:25:34

    CAMAROTAIn addition, because this is such a low-income population, there are other social services that the child, not necessarily the parent, would be eligible for as well. So obviously the cost will run into the billions. And that's something we have to recognize. If you take the position that they have to stay, you have to recognize that there is a competition for scarce public resources with low-income Americans. The areas where they settle will be schools that are already straining at the seams and already having a difficult time dealing with low income populations and the challenges that creates.

  • 10:26:07

    CAMAROTAAnd we think that a strong majority of the adults who arrive from Central America have less than a high school education. So when the modern American economy, even though they mostly do work, they're not going to make much money, they're not going to pay much taxes and they have a lot of needs given that socioeconomic circumstance.

  • 10:26:22

    REHMWendy Young, Steven has raised a great many issues, many of which are of concern to Americans. You've seen the protests at the border. You've seen people saying, go home, we don't want you. Go back to your countries. What do you make of all this?

  • 10:26:46

    YOUNGWell, certainly I think the starting point for this discussion, both with the administration but with the broader public, has to be that this is more refugee like than it is immigration. And despite what Steven said, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has actually issued guidelines of saying the exact kind of violence that these children are fleeing may very well fit within the refugee definition. And as the guardian of the international refugee definition, which is codified into U.S. law, that's a very important statement.

  • 10:27:14

    YOUNGThey've stated that almost 60 percent of these children are fleeing violence in Central America that rises to the level of persecution. That should be considered for protection.

  • 10:27:23

    REHMAll right, Steven. How do you respond?

  • 10:27:26

    CAMAROTAWell, the fact is that anyone can sympathize with people who come from a low-income country, especially one that's...

  • 10:27:30

    REHMNo. But she's not talking about low-income.

  • 10:27:32

    CAMAROTABut if it's -- sure. In a country...

  • 10:27:34

    REHMTalking about violence.

  • 10:27:35

    CAMAROTARight, that has violence, right. But there are some cities in the United States that have murder rates that are similar to some part of these countries. The idea that just random violence or even organized criminal gangs constitutes grounds for being admitted to the United States. An exception, if you will, to the normal way of getting in under refugee or asylee law means that you're going to be facing hundreds of thousands of new people coming because there is a lot of that violence throughout the world, not just in Central America.

  • 10:28:02


  • 10:28:02

    YOUNGWell, there's a middle ground here. This is exactly why we have an asylum system, so that we can adjudicate who needs protection in the United States and should be allowed to remain and who can safely go back to their home country. We shouldn't shortcut that part of our law that's been there for many, many years and is a recognition that the U.S. has a leadership role in refugee protection around the world. Just as we ask countries in the Middle East to keep their borders open to Syrian refugees, we need to do the same thing for countries that are on our back doorstep.

  • 10:28:31

    YOUNGBut I will say, those adjudications should happen on a more timely basis and those children who are found not eligible for relief in the United States should be deported and returned home.

  • 10:28:42

    REHMHere is an email from Ken, Wendy. He says, "America cannot even take care of their own. How can we justify spending tax dollars on immigrants? It makes me very upset and I think they should all be deported immediately."

  • 10:29:08

    YOUNGThis country has a very, very strong history of refugee protection. And I think for most Americans, if you look at your roots you know that your own family very often fled circumstances just like these kids are fleeing. And I would ask your listeners to think of those children's faces. When I go into my office very day, I see four-year-olds, I see six-year-olds standing there. Can't we at least take the time to figure out what's going on in their lives and decide whether they should be allowed to stay here or go home. And again, I'm not saying that every child should be allowed to remain.

  • 10:29:38

    REHMFawn Johnson.

  • 10:29:40

    JOHNSONOne of the things that I find fascinating about this debate is that it really is more of a refugee type conversation. I think that's the place where, you know, the debate should happen. Where do you draw the line? You know, like Steve says, you let people stay in the country, that does have consequences.

  • 10:29:59

    JOHNSONBut the problem is that because the immigration issue is so controversial, it's controversial throughout the country and inside the capital, it's becoming mixed up with that. So if you listen to Republicans in the House, or in the Senate -- I was listening to Senator Jeff Sessions in Alabama yesterday on the floor complaining about this -- what they will complain about is the things that really are only tangentially related, if related at all. Like the deferred action program for people who came here years ago with their parents. The children who are crossing now are not eligible for that program.

  • 10:30:34

    JOHNSONBut Republicans are very angry about that program and so are a lot of Americans. And so the problem is that even the perception of the problem starts to become, is it immigration, is it refugee? We don't really know.

  • 10:30:48

    REHMSteven, talking about these protests that erupted in California last week, how much do you think this represents the feeling of the American people?

  • 10:31:04

    CAMAROTAWell, I think the public is understandably conflicted. They recognize that we must always temper any notion of law enforcement with ideas of mercy. And conditions are difficult in Central America. But they also recognize that the system's probably being gamed. If you have a situation where a person, a child comes with a parent at the border, that is a normal situation where you can quickly use the parent, interview the parent and send them back and see if they have any credible fear.

  • 10:31:33

    CAMAROTAIf you have a situation where a child says, yes, well my mother lives in Phoenix and the mother comes to the detention facility, then you can interview her and the child and see if they have a credible claim. And if not, you can send them immediately back. The idea that we have to parole them into the United States or release them into the United States, when as I said, experience shows that the vast majority will stay permanently.

  • 10:31:55

    CAMAROTAPeople who are denied asylum in the United States almost always stay illegally if they choose to. And so we have to recognize that that word is out. And if you say that we should let them stay and should parole them into the United States, hundreds of thousands of additional people are going to make this trip. And there are consequences for the American taxpayers.

  • 10:32:14

    REHMHow do we find their parents if the children say their parents or relatives are here, Fawn?

  • 10:32:26

    JOHNSONI think you have to use the networks that have already been established within the country. And this is the place -- this is the reason, I think, why you see some of the surging is that the communication network with the populations of people from various countries here in the United States and the countries are very strong. So if the child says that they have a mother in Phoenix, they probably also know that mother's phone number.

  • 10:32:49

    REHMFawn Johnson of National Journal and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now from his office here in Washington, Adam Isacson. He's a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. Welcome, Adam.

  • 10:33:18

    MR. ADAM ISACSONThank you, Diane. Good morning.

  • 10:33:20

    REHMI gather you visited every sector of the U.S. - Mexico border. You just released a new report in June on Mexico's border with Guatemala. How much time did you spend there and what did you learn?

  • 10:33:38

    ISACSONWe spent 12 days down at the border between Mexico and Guatemala going to several spots, and include -- and also a spot at the end of the railroad near Mexico City. And what we found was, first of all, the migrant shelters where people stay as they wait for these two lines of cargo trains to come and take them northward were very full. The shelter operators were saying that the population of Central Americans that they were keeping was roughly double what it was the year before. They were not seeing the big wave of unaccompanied minors that border patrol is seeing at the U.S. border, but they were seeing at least a doubling or tripling in the number of children, both accompanied and unaccompanied, there.

  • 10:34:22

    ISACSONOne other thing I found, and it sort of confused me I supposed, was just how Mexico runs its own border security in southern Mexico. It's very easy to cross that border. I did it four times without ever having to show my passport. But once you get in a little bit from the border, Mexico does a very thorough job on the road network. There are many, many roadblocks through which we had to pass from nine different security migration forces. So it's hard to go by roads unless you can pay a smuggler thousands of dollars who then is able to bribe all of the people running those roadblocks.

  • 10:34:55

    ISACSONBut it gets weirder because there are these two lines of trains that go up to Mexico City from there, and from there onto the U.S. border which people hop on. And they sit on these cargo trains. And this is what you do if you can't afford an expensive smuggler. It's a very dangerous route and it is an almost completely un-policed route.

  • 10:35:14

    REHMDo we know exactly who the smugglers are? Is there any chance to stop them?

  • 10:35:22

    ISACSONIn this case the smugglers probably have roots in the Central American communities, but they also operate with the permission or the say-so of the Mexican cartels as well, like the Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel, whoever runs the territory they're going through. Stopping them involves stopping organized crime networks in general, which is something we've only made halting progress at in Latin America. And we're really impeded by corruption in the governments that we're working with.

  • 10:35:52

    REHMHow does a poor child in Central America come up with the money to pay for a smuggler?

  • 10:36:04

    ISACSONIf they're going that smuggler route, which is -- if it's a smuggler with a decent reputation, that's as close to first class as you're going to get. Probably you have a relative in the United States who has been scrimping and saving to bring you up here. And they are paying roughly, very roughly $8,000 or so for that. Children who don't have the money, mainly teenagers, are often taking the train, which requires that you simply pay off the gangs who control each section of train about $100 for every couple hundred miles.

  • 10:36:33

    REHMAnd some people finally have said that young people hear that U.S. border authorities offer entry permits for those who make it into the country. Did you find that to be a factor?

  • 10:36:51

    ISACSONI did not hear about that although some people in the shelter network in Mexico are hearing of that rumor now, probably being spread by smugglers. But that's recent and the rumors really are only in the last few months. And I think what they're referring to as entry permits are the notices to appear in immigration hearings that they get when they're apprehended.

  • 10:37:13

    REHMAdam Isacson. He is with the Washington Office on Latin American. Thank you for joining us, Adam.

  • 10:37:22

    ISACSONMy pleasure. Thank you for having me.

  • 10:37:24

    REHMAnd we'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your questions, comments. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk in this hour about children, unaccompanied children in many cases. Some with parents crossing the borders illegally and wishing to stay here in the United States. Many thousands now being kept -- I don't even want to call it housed -- in various kinds of situations. We're going to open the phones now. First to David in Indianapolis. Go right ahead, sir. You're on the air. David, are you there? Sorry. Let's go to Cliff in St. Louis, Mo.

  • 10:40:58

    CLIFFYes, hello. My question really goes along the lines of, one, what I see is, particularly from South America, basically the retaking of America through attrition by South America and Mexico. Many of the people who come over are ill-skilled, and so they're not really adding to our GDP. They're just a drag on it. It's an -- what I see as an unrealistic use of tax dollars by an overly burdened middle class and lower class. We haven't taken the time to actually begin to look at the issues, which are over population, lack of jobs and our inability to tax the upper classes in all nations at marginal tax rates.

  • 10:41:43

    REHMAll right, sir. I'm going to stop you right there. I've got an email following up on that from Don in Washington, who says, "My main concern with the immigration crisis is, what happens next? When you have adults and, even more importantly, children who do not speak the language, have no work skills, how do we expect to them to assimilate successfully and not fall prey to the exact same exploitative conditions they left in their country." Wendy.

  • 10:42:25

    YOUNGSure. Well, I think our history has shown that people do assimilate over time. And certainly with the children that we work with, I can say that many of them actually, when they're given the opportunity, do quite, quite well here. They're eager for the opportunity. In many ways, these kids are survivors. If you think about the trip that they've taken thousands of miles to get here. They're eager to learn. They're eager to reestablish themselves in the United States and start their futures.

  • 10:42:49

    REHMWendy. Sorry, Fawn.

  • 10:42:52

    JOHNSONThat was very nice, Wendy. I think, it's interesting that those -- the caller and your email that you just read really capitalize the problem here. What our caller was talking about is a much bigger issue that no one has resolved in the country. But what our emailer was asking is, what do we do now? How do we handle this? And I think that what we were looking for from the administration is, they're trying to deal with the problem right now, as we see it. This summer, what do we do with all those kids on the border? How can we get enough people there so that we can process them quickly?

  • 10:43:22

    JOHNSONThey're trying to be fair and also to send the message: Please don't come. A lot of you are going to be deported. But we need to, I think, it's like you have to start now and then worry about what happens later. But it is also true that those who are granted some ability to stay in the United States, particularly if they're young, do assimilate very quickly -- children, very quickly.

  • 10:43:40


  • 10:43:40

    CAMAROTAWell the assimilation, I think, most people would refer to it as segmented -- especially those who come from low-income families whose parents don't have a lot of education. Unfortunately, a very large fraction of those kids end up in poverty. We know from Census Bureau data, just looking at Central Americans, legal and illegal, in the United States, in the census data from 2012, about 60 percent are illegal. About 40 percent are legal, based on the government's estimates. About 53 percent of those households access one of the major welfare programs.

  • 10:44:10

    CAMAROTANearly half, around 45 percent, have no health insurance, of the people who live in those households. However, it is also the case that about 75 percent of Central Americans of working age actually do work. What happens is, given their educational attainment, they work. But they have generally large families, and so they're eligible for a host of social programs. And they don't pay that much in taxes. And this is one of the challenges or costs associated with allowing people who don't have a lot of education to stay, given the modern American economy.

  • 10:44:40

    REHMWendy, how do you respond?

  • 10:44:42

    YOUNGWell, I would agree with Fawn. I think that these problems, these challenges that immigration presents to the United States really preexists this crisis. And we need to keep our eyes focused on the fact that these are children who are seeking protection here, and not try to solve our dysfunctional immigration system on their backs.

  • 10:45:00

    REHMHere's a tweet from Max, who says, "We accepted folks who fled the Nazi atrocities in Europe during the thirties and forties. Imagine if we had not." Steven.

  • 10:45:16

    CAMAROTASure. And in that particular case, people would have had a pretty strong claim. Actually, you could make the case that we didn't do enough in those circumstances. But that's a particular case where people were persecuted because of their specific membership in a social group or their religion in many cases. That is not what's occurring in Central America. Crime and poverty, however deplorable, are not persecution.

  • 10:45:39

    CAMAROTAAnd if we decide as a nation that we are going to let people come in almost unlimited from poor places that are extremely chaotic and crime ridden, then we have to be prepared to let its flow will go on and on with all kinds of implications for taxpayers, the rule of law and American workers and sovereignty.

  • 10:45:56

    REHMAll right. To Gary in Ann Arbor, Mich. You're on the air.

  • 10:46:02

    GARYHi, thanks. I think we need -- we Americans need to take a look at a broader sense of responsibility. When it comes to the crime that the gentleman just spoke about, we Americans are the number one consumers of the drugs that those drug gangs rely on and that these kids are fleeing from. And if every American would look in their closet, I'm sure they would see clothing with tags that say, "Made in Guatemala," "Made in Mexico," "Made in Bangladesh," and other non-clothing products. We Americans live a very comfortable lifestyle that relies on the low wages and disparity of income and the resulting poverty that these children are fleeing from.

  • 10:46:46

    GARYIt's outrageous that we can say that we can't afford to help them or that it's not our problem.

  • 10:46:52

    REHMFawn Johnson.

  • 10:46:54

    JOHNSONI -- one of the things that I find -- the best answer that I have heard from members of Congress who are trying to get briefings on this situation is, the way that we help the situation is we try to fix the problems inside Central America. What I think is ironic about that is that, one, that's very difficult to do. And two, this is something that has been on the radar screen since I've been covering immigration and long before it. That the reason why we have this disparity at our border is because, in Mexico, the situation is different than it is here.

  • 10:47:28

    JOHNSONAnd so the long-term solution, and we're talking really long term, is to try and help those countries build up whatever they need to. But that's not going to fix the situation this summer.

  • 10:47:37

    REHMExactly. All right, to Philadelphia, Pa. Carolyn, you're on the air.

  • 10:47:45

    CAROLYNYes, thank you. I remember about ten years ago reading a front-page article on USA Today about OTMs, that's other than Mexicans, coming over the border, being released because there wasn't enough facilities to hold them. Besides the 2008 Bill, there was a 2002 Homeland Security Bill that Bush signed. I don't know how similar it was to the 2008, but illegals were let go because there wasn't enough facilities, with an order to appear in court. Wasn't this a risky bill, especially right after 9/11, where so many foreigners coming into our country over our borders would be released into our cities?

  • 10:48:22


  • 10:48:23

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. Yes. I think, there's a couple different things to unpack here. I believe what the caller's referring to when it comes to 2002 is there was a policy under the Bush administration in which he did, in fact, stop, called catch and release, which essentially meant that you had to be ordered to come into a court. This was a way to deal with the immigration influx without having to spend a lot of money on it. And they were -- at the time, right after 9/11, you have to remember that what they were doing is they were building up the border from almost nothing.

  • 10:48:56

    JOHNSONThey went, in ten years, tripled, quadrupled the number of troops there -- or not even troops, but Border Patrol there. And then, at times, they had the National Guard there as well. But at the beginning, we didn't have that. So this was -- we're going way back to when it really was more of a revolving door. And in the beginning of the Obama administration, what they started doing -- and this is part of the reason why the backlog has existed -- is that they started actually processing these people who came in from Mexico much more deliberately, which meant that they weren't just going to send you right across the border and have you come across the next day.

  • 10:49:30


  • 10:49:30

    JOHNSONThey were going to fingerprint you, they were going to document. So that if you came across again, you could be formally deported. Now, if you come across again, it's a felony. They started doing this -- I think that they finally had it instituted around 2011. And they've been doing that ever since. But this is a long process from -- at the beginning of the Bush administration, we didn't have anything like that.

  • 10:49:50

    REHMFawn, I gather you recently visited a holding area in Arizona.

  • 10:49:58

    JOHNSONOh, that was a couple of years ago. Yes. I was -- in 2012, I went to visit the detention facility that they had in Tucson, Ariz. It's the biggest facility near -- it's about 70 miles from Nogales, which is one of the largest commercial and trafficked area in Arizona.

  • 10:50:17

    REHMDescribe it for us.

  • 10:50:18

    JOHNSONSo the detention facility in Tucson was very well run. I mean, I will say that. But it is essentially a three-day holding pen for people. It is not meant to house them long term. So you can imagine what would happen if you start to double or triple the population of people who come there. And they were showing me around the facilities. You'd have busses that would come up and there would be literally a pen. I mean, it's covered and the people would be sitting in lines on the floor. You know, they would separate the men from the women. A lot of them were young. Whether they were minors, I can't really tell. I mean, they all looked like teenagers to me.

  • 10:50:53

    JOHNSONAnd I wasn't talking to them, I wasn't allowed to take pictures or anything like that.

  • 10:50:57

    REHMCement floors?

  • 10:50:58

    JOHNSONYeah. Or like a, you know, like a -- or not cement so much. It was outside. So this is them waiting to be processed.

  • 10:51:04


  • 10:51:05

    JOHNSONAnd essentially they would then be searched by search, you know, so cut -- like one person, I saw them cut open his collar and pull out a bunch of cash.

  • 10:51:14


  • 10:51:14

    JOHNSONThat's meant for smugglers, you know, or if you're mugged or if there's gangs, to protect yourself. So they take everything, you know, that you bring with you, all of your U.S. cash and everything like that. And then you go through a processing system. I mean, it did not look inhumane to me, but it was -- it was very much like sitting on a gym floor, you know, and handing out juice boxes.

  • 10:51:34

    REHMWendy Young, in your view, what's the best solution to what's happening now? Not the long term, but now?

  • 10:51:47

    YOUNGIt's a complicated problems and I don't think there's going to be a magic bullet that can solve this problem. So we have proposed basically a multi-pronged solution. First and foremost, is to, as Fawn said, over the long term, address the root causes of the migration, so that kids can remain home safely and don't have to make these dangerous treks. Then you asked...

  • 10:52:07

    REHMThat involves huge investments in other countries.

  • 10:52:09

    YOUNGOf foreign aid, exactly. Secondly, we've proposed opening up in-country processing in the countries of origin, so the people can present themselves to the U.S. government, ask for protection and resettlement to the U.S., without taking that dangerous trip. And also it enables us to restore some order to the movement.

  • 10:52:27

    REHMHasn't that been done previously?

  • 10:52:29

    YOUNGThat has been done in countries like Haiti, Cuba, former Soviet Union and Vietnam.

  • 10:52:34


  • 10:52:34

    YOUNGSo there are models that we can look to in our own past.

  • 10:52:38

    REHMBut not in Central American countries?

  • 10:52:42

    YOUNGCorrect, not in Central America. Secondly, we need to build up the asylum systems in the surrounding region. Asylum applications are actually up 712 percent in countries like Costa Rica and Panama, from the exact same countries of origin. So we need to create protection opportunities in the region. This is really a regional crisis. Third, we need to adjudicate the cases in the United States in a much, much more timely basis. Sixty to ninety days, rather than these multi-year waits that we're experiencing.

  • 10:53:10

    REHMAnd what would that take in terms of money and personnel?

  • 10:53:14

    YOUNGCertainly it would require an infusion of immigration judges...

  • 10:53:17


  • 10:53:17

    YOUNG...and officers from DHS.

  • 10:53:19

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Steven, from your perspective, how would you deal with the current crisis?

  • 10:53:30

    CAMAROTAWell, I would say that, you know, obviously there are competing claims here, to think about our solution. We can't lose sight of the fact that there are 46 million Americans currently in poverty. There are 25 million less-educated Americans not working. They don't have a lot of education and they're of working age and they're not working. It's at an all-time high. They're employment rate looked terrible. We have lots of places in the United States that are already struggling to provide social services to low-income populations.

  • 10:53:54

    CAMAROTAAdmitting several hundred thousand people from Central America has important implications. If we want it to stop, there are some basic things we can do. We can stop applying the law so broadly. Though all -- most of all the young kids are arrested with parents. We can interview the parents, make a quick determination, and send those back expeditiously. We can ask for more cooperation from Mexico. Mexico could interdict a large share. In the early 2000s, Mexico did that. We had an agreement where they repatriated folks.

  • 10:54:21

    CAMAROTARemember, we're still looking at about -- the New York Times reported about 290,000 or 280,000 people from Central America -- maybe 50,000 of them are children. So we're getting a lot of adults too. Mexico could do a lot there to interdict them. The bottom line is, if we don't try to send as many people back as quickly as possible, then we have to bear responsibility for all the new people who will continue to try to come and risk their lives.

  • 10:54:46

    REHMAnd Fawn Johnson, the president is expected to ask for some $2 billion today.

  • 10:54:54


  • 10:54:55

    REHMWhat's the Congress likely to do about this current issue now?

  • 10:55:02

    JOHNSONI think that they will probably give him the money. I can't say for sure because, you know, I have seen a lot of yapping in Congress, is probably the best way to put it.

  • 10:55:11

    REHMAnd how will that money be used?

  • 10:55:13

    JOHNSONIt will be used for adjudicators and processing and for social workers. So the idea is to do exactly what both Steve and Wendy have been asking to do, which is to expedite the process much more quickly, which I think will bring some logic to the situation and also might send the message to people back in the Central American countries that this really is not the solution. You might find yourself right back where you started.

  • 10:55:37

    REHMSo how likely -- do you think it is quite likely that Congress will do this?

  • 10:55:43

    JOHNSONI think so. I mean, I -- what I -- we'll know a little bit more when we hear from the heads of the HHS, from the State Department, and from Jay Johnson, the Homeland Security Secretary, later in the week. The Senate Appropriations Committee already has a hearing scheduled. I'm sure that they will address the House. I already have been up on the Hill a lot. They've been yelled at a lot. But I think that, when it comes right down to an actual solution being presented to them, it's kind of hard to say no.

  • 10:56:10

    REHMAnd Steven, what do you think?

  • 10:56:13

    CAMAROTACongress might ask, but it's going to get stuck in the general disagreements about immigration and enforcement. So it's not clear whether Congress will ask. But at least, I think, politically, what the president's hoping is he can say, well, look I asked Congress for money. They didn't give it to me. See, so it's really their fault. Even though I think you could make a pretty strong argument that his policies have significantly contributed -- both is interpretation of the 2008 law and also his non-enforcement of immigration laws generally.

  • 10:56:41

    REHMLast word, Wendy.

  • 10:56:43

    YOUNGWell, I would agree. I'm not a betting person, but I'm guessing that Congress will move something. The question will be what comes out at the end of the process.

  • 10:56:49

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:56:50

    YOUNGWhat price will the administration pay for this?

  • 10:56:52

    REHMWendy Young, she's president of Kids in Need of Defense. Fawn Johnson of National Journal. Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. Thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:09

    CAMAROTAThank you.

  • 10:57:09

    JOHNSONThanks, Diane.

  • 10:57:10

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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