In the last nine months, nearly 60,000 migrant children from Central America have crossed the southern U.S. border without guardians. This number has nearly doubled since last year and shows no signs of slowing while Elkhart County has become one of the top destinations in Indiana.
Rumors swept through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that if children traveled across the border to the United States on their own, they would be allowed to stay. With gang violence, death threats, harassment, rape and the highest murder rates in the world pushing in these childrens’ back yards, the decision was an easy one for many.
Of those three Central American countries, the largest proportion are coming from Honduras. Once children cross the border, they are moved through several facilities. If they have family in the U.S., they are reunited and live wherever the families do.
Why does this matter for Elkhart?
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said that as of July 26, it had placed 245 of these children with sponsors in Indiana, and a total of 30,340 had been placed with sponsors in the U.S. It is reasonable to say the current influx into the country will be echoed in Elkhart County.
Elkhart has one of the highest Honduran populations in the state. As of June 30, there were more unaccompanied minors coming from Honduras than any other Central American country. A sample survey spanning 2008 to 2012 from the U.S. Census estimates 871 Honduran Residents reside in Elkhart County, compared to only 32 in LaPorte County and 65 in St. Joseph County. It is reasonable to predict some of the local population will be sponsors and are family members of these kids who have yet to be reunited.
One recent study stated more people are choosing to make Elkhart their home than almost anywhere else in Indiana.
“Elkhart County experienced a net influx of 3,172 international migrants, the third-largest number in the state,” according to the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business from 2000 to 2003.
There are some who feel that the weight should not solely rest on the shoulders of the courts. Instead, they see the surge in UAC as indicative of a faulty immigration policy as a whole.
Bob Schrameyer, founder and president of Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, is one. He believes that when we focus too much on legal proceedings, border protection doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
“We reap what we sow,” Schrameyer said. “We don’t secure the border, and now we have a problem.” Schrameyer also said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a large amount of the children coming into Elkhart County.
He noted the amount President Obama has directed toward U.S. Customs and Border Protection reinforcement is just a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the $3.7 billion.
Almost a third of the requested money ($1.1 billion) will be directed to the Department of Homeland Security to assist in transportation and apprehension of those crossing the southern border. Most of that money will be spent on deporting undocumented adults traveling with children, which will happen much faster than children who are traveling alone. Whether the UAC can be immediately deported remains a sticky issue for politicians. As it stands, UACs are allowed to stay due to their status as minors.
Schrameyer is adamantly in favor of sending U.S. National Guard to the border to assist in arming it and keeping children from crossing at all. He also said the time spent deporting these children is far too long, and they should immediately be returned. At the same time, Schrameyer noted the fact that underage children calls for some exceptions.
“You would have to have a very humane way of taking care of these kids,” Schrameyer said. “You can’t be uncompassionate, you can’t just give them back to coyotajes to take them back. You have to assure their safe return.”
Schrameyer believes the cost of flying kids back to Central America would be an exponentially smaller bill than keeping them in the U.S. for what could be several months or years of court proceedings.
“I wonder how bad things have been in Central America that now we have such an influx of their citizens,” Schrameyer said. He believes the best action by Washington would be to cut off aid to these countries entirely.
Schrameyer believes Congress should deny to the amount requested by President Obama. He believes allowing $3.7 billion to be directed to this issue in the wrong avenues is the same as writing a blank check, as additional money will be needed.
Felipe Merino, an immigration attorney from Goshen, represents unaccompanied minor cases. He thinks the money would be best spent determining how to get through to kids (using child psychologists to help UAC open up and explain their stories to the court, thus pinpointing the root issues) after undergoing hard journeys.
“I don’t think increasing the number of federal immigration judges solves anything,” Merino said. “It just puts a patch over the problem.”
An abdication of judicial responsibility won’t solve the issue either; to Merino and Schrameyer, the only way to manage the ever-spreading numbers is to cut to the core of immigration reform.
“I don’t think the current system is broken. It is largely non-existent,” Merino said. “In the past we have aided foreign governments and look where it got us. Obama needs to engage in diplomacy, but it needs to be more than dishing out money. This is a specific issue. We are not talking about migration as a whole. We are talking about kids taking a dangerous journey.”
Immigration reform has weighed heavy in Washington for some time. U.S. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, joined Republican leaders on June 17 in requesting presidential action regarding the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) entering the country.
On July 15, Coats addressed the House floor. Coats told The Elkhart Truth how the issue directly impacts immigration as a whole and Indiana’s economy specifically.
“The humanitarian and economic impact of our nation’s unenforced immigration policies are not felt only by the states on our southern border,” said Coats. “The president’s picking and choosing of which laws to enforce has given hope to undocumented Central American migrants who choose to bypass our immigration system and look for opportunities in Indiana and the Midwest, rather than wait in line as so many legal immigrants have done before them. Those immigrants who choose to legally enter the United States play an important role in the Hoosier and national economies, and we must ensure that illegal immigrants cannot cut to the front of the line.”
To Coats, the solution is found partially through a streamlined processing system. Currently, it can take years for a child to be returned to his or her country of origin.
Coats’ initial request to the president was not the catalyst, but it was around the same time that media outlets began to portray the influx as an overnight downpour.
Many media groups have painted a picture of undocumented children flooding already overcrowded shelters and drowning courts with the responsibility to provide each one the correct legal protection, if any.
But while the spike was comparatively sudden, it was not instantaneous.
Children who can’t find family members to sponsor them are usually left in shelters along the southern border. These shelters are running out of bed space. President Obama took notice and has requested $3.7 billion to address the issue. The money requested would be used to fund transportation, place task forces in Central America, increase surveillance along the border and hire additional immigration judges to expedite the legal processing.
The request is causing debate over what to do with the children and why they are coming in the first place. Democrats are pointing to the children’s stories and saying it is due to gang violence. Republicans are pointing at watered down immigration policies as the culprit. Both agree word is spreading that children won’t be sent back.
Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have issued statements encouraging parents to not send their kids on a very dangerous journey when they may be deported anyway.
With an increased focus from media and a request for what some see as a blank check from the White House, tensions are indeed rising. Debate on how the money should be spent and how we should respond has rippled from coast to coast — and Elkhart County is no exception.