Il­le­gals nab chil­dren to cross bor­der as ‘fam­i­lies’

Of­fi­cial makes claim, de­fends Obama pol­icy

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Il­le­gal im­mi­grants are kid­nap­ping chil­dren and bring­ing them across the bor­der, hop­ing to ap­pear to be fam­i­lies so they can take ad­van­tage of lax en­force­ment poli­cies, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion told a fed­eral ap­peals court last week.

Leon Fresco, a deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral who han­dles im­mi­gra­tion cases, made the stun­ning claim as he de­fended the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of de­tain­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grant par­ents and chil­dren caught trav­el­ing to­gether as they jump the bor­der. Af­ter a fed­eral judge last year or­dered the fam­i­lies quickly re­leased, Mr. Fresco said it has served as an en­tice­ment for kid­nap­ping.

“When peo­ple now know that when I come as a fam­ily unit, I won’t be ap­pre­hended and de­tained — we now have peo­ple be­ing ab­ducted so that they can be deemed as fam­ily units, so that they can avoid de­ten­tion,” Mr. Fresco told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals.

He did not back up that claim in court and did not re­spond to a fol­low-up email seek­ing com­ment. U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, the agency that han­dles de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion, de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing the on­go­ing case, while U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, which guards the bor­der, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

But Peter Schey, the lawyer who ar­gued in court on be­half of the fam­i­lies, and is in touch with hun­dreds of fam­i­lies as part of the law­suit, said there is no ev­i­dence to back up Mr. Fresco’s claim.

“We know zero in­stances of that, and there’s zero sup­port for that any­where in the record,” he said. “If they know of any such in­stances, I would think they would bring the ac­tual in­stances to the at­ten­tion of the court.”

How to treat the il­le­gal im­mi­grant fam­i­lies is just one of the thorny ques­tions raised by the surge of il­le­gal im­mi­grants flee­ing Cen­tral Amer­ica over the past few years.

Most of the at­ten­tion has gone to the un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors who have ar­rived by the tens of thou­sands. Un­der a 1990sera le­gal agree­ment known as the Flores set­tle­ment, the chil­dren are re­quired to be quickly pro­cessed and re­leased to so­cial work­ers, and even­tu­ally placed with fam­ily or other spon­sors.

But even more of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can il­le­gal im­mi­grants are now com­ing as fam­ily units — a par­ent and chil­dren trav­el­ing to­gether — and the rules for han­dling them are hotly de­bated.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion opened sev­eral de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties to hold the fam­i­lies, hop­ing to quickly de­port them, send­ing a mes­sage back to El Sal­vador, Gu­atemala and Hon­duras that the jour­ney north would be for naught.

Mr. Schey and other im­mi­grant rights ad­vo­cates, how­ever, chal­lenged the de­ten­tion, ar­gu­ing the fam­i­lies were be­ing held in jail-like fa­cil­i­ties un­suit­able for chil­dren. They ar­gued the Flores agree­ment re­quired bet­ter treat­ment.

Last year, Judge Dolly M. Gee agreed, and or­dered all of the chil­dren quickly pro­cessed and re­leased. In cases where they came with a par­ent, she said it usu­ally made sense to re­lease the par­ent too, be­cause that was in the best in­ter­ests of the chil­dren.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion warned that would lead to a new surge of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, and the numbers bear that out, with fis­cal year 2016 on track to set a record for fam­ily units caught try­ing to jump the bor­der.

Mr. Fresco, ar­gu­ing to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals, said the Flores agree­ment was only sup­posed to ap­ply to un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors, not to those who ar­rive as part of a fam­ily. He said that was the un­der­stand­ing for more than a decade, and im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists have only re­cently sought a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

But Judge An­drew D. Hur­witz said the agree­ment seems clear.

“On the face of the agree­ment, it sure seems to ap­ply to all mi­nors,” he said.

Still, he said Judge Gee’s or­der push­ing all moth­ers to be re­leased along with their chil­dren goes be­yond the Flores set­tle­ment’s word­ing. He won­dered if there wasn’t a mid­dle ground that pro­hib­ited the gov­ern­ment from treat­ing moth­ers with chil­dren worse than other il­le­gal im­mi­grants, but stopped short of or­der­ing their quick re­lease.

“Our only con­cern, and the court’s only con­cern, was that they were treat­ing the moth­ers in a way that they weren’t treat­ing any­body else in the United States,” Mr. Schey told the judges.

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