Just 108 of the thousands of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the U.S. border have been granted asylum in 2014, in a process that often takes more than a year, members of the U.S. Congress heard on Tuesday.
Many more children who entered the country are likely to be provided asylum status later this year, and experts say there are several other avenues through which minors can seek to stay in the country. But the process, especially for asylum-seekers, is cumbersome and slow, contributing to what U.S. President Barack Obama labeled a humanitarian crisis on the southwest border.
Since October more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended crossing the border, and about three-quarters of them are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — Central American countries where youths are fleeing poverty and gang violence.
More than 1,500 child migrants who arrived in the United States without papers or parents applied for asylum in fiscal year 2014, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodríguez.
But with immigrants usually making their formal asylum requests more than 10 months after first being apprehended, most of those applicants arrived the previous year.
“Of the 167 unaccompanied children asylum cases adjudicated on the merits in [Fiscal Year 2014] through the third quarter, 108 have been granted asylum status,” Rodríguez told a House panel.
But in a sign of how the process is mired in legal hurdles and delays, only two of those minors granted asylum were apprehended this year, he said.
“For those who do apply, the delays in the process are very significant,” Anwen Hughes, a senior counsel at Human Rights First told AFP. “It is taking over a year for asylum applicants to get an initial hearing before the immigration court in some jurisdictions.”
Hughes said that nearly half the child migrants are not represented by a lawyer when they appear in immigration court for the first time.
Obama is seeking $3.7 billion in emergency funding aimed at boosting the number of immigration judges, improving care for detained minors and deterring illegal immigration.
Congress members are likely to trim his request dramatically.
Senate Democrats have introduced a $2.7 billion package, but House Republicans on Tuesday unveiled funding pared down to just $659 million.
The House plan would tweak a 2008 law targeting child trafficking that expanded legal rights for Central American child migrants, essentially revoking some of those rights to allow for speedier deportations.
The Senate bill would not change the 2008 law, which many Republicans blame for fueling the immigration wave.
House Speaker John Boehner said he hopes to pass legislation this week, before lawmakers leave town on a five-week recess, but that would require significant compromise between the two chambers before Friday.