AUGUSTA, Maine — The immigration and humanitarian crisis created by tens of thousands of unaccompanied children illegally entering the United States became a minor controversy in Maine this week when Gov. Paul LePage learned that eight such boys and girls had been placed here sometime between January and July.
The children likely were placed with relatives — as is the case with most of the kids referred to as “unaccompanied alien children.” The governor was surprised to hear the eight children were placed in Maine without his knowledge, and has raised questions about the state’s role in their care.
Because of privacy concerns, the federal Department of Health and Human Services — the agency charged with caring for and protecting such kids —- releases little specific information about these children.
Arrival and processing
Usually, only about 7,000 or 8,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border each year. But in the past few years, the figure has surged. The federal government predicts that 60,000 or more children will enter the U.S. alone and illegally this fiscal year.
The rapid increase has created a backlog of tens of thousands of children awaiting processing, forcing the federal government to open three large temporary shelters at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.
About 37 percent of unaccompanied alien children come from Guatemala, while another 30 percent come from Honduras and 20 percent from El Salvador, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within DHHS. Roughly three-quarters of the children are boys, and about one-quarter are under 14 years old.
Children from Mexico and Canada are processed by the Department of Homeland Security, and nearly always deported quickly. Others are handed to DHHS.
The refugee office places the children in one of about 100 short-term shelters around the country, where the minors are screened, given medical treatment, and cared for while the agency identifies a family member to care for the child. The children’s care is paid for entirely by the federal government. None of the centers are in Maine.
Often a family member is identified — Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said more than 50 percent of the time, it’s a parent — but when they’re not, a “long-term sponsor” may take over care of the child while he or she awaits a deportation hearing by the immigration court.
Await immigration hearings
A growing backlog in the immigration court system has created long wait times — up to two years, according to some reports — but every unaccompanied alien child ultimately will face a removal hearing, more commonly known as a deportation hearing. Cases involving unaccompanied children account for about 11 percent of the entire immigration court backlog.
The fate of the child depends on circumstances surrounding his or her entry into the United States, said Susan Roche, executive director of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project Maine. Children who were victims of a crime or who face persecution in their native countries may qualify for some manner of legal status, Roche said.
“Most are coming from Central America, from gang violence or human trafficking,” she said. “Those are the types of things a lot of these children are fleeing from.”
A July 15 report by Syracuse University shows that the outcome of any individual child’s hearing varies greatly by whether the child is represented by an attorney. The government is not obligated to provide an attorney, and often the child and his or her family are unable to afford one. The report found that roughly half of children are unrepresented in removal hearings.
Just under half of immigration cases from 2005 through June 2014 involving unaccompanied children who have lawyers ended with the child being given some kind of legal residence — asylum, a special visa for victims of human trafficking, or “special juvenile immigration status,” which is for children who were abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents.
When the child was unrepresented, cases ended with deportation 90 percent of the time.
The state’s role
LePage raised concerns about the state’s role in caring for undocumented alien children within its borders and about being left in the dark about the eight children who were placed here this year.
LePage has long maintained that the federal government needs to do something to stem the influx of undocumented immigrants into the United States and use a firm hand in dealing with those who enter the country illegally.
In a written statement Tuesday, LePage said: “We cannot afford to spend our limited resources on those who come here illegally… It is wrong for the federal government to force a higher burden on the people of Maine to pay for those who come to our country illegally, especially when the government secretly places illegal aliens in our state without our knowledge.”
The federal government is under no legal obligation to disclose to a state when it places undocumented children with family members or foster care.
Nearly all undocumented immigrants — including children — are ineligible for state and federal welfare benefits. Still, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor had concerns about the cost of educating the unaccompanied children, and about the immigration crisis writ large.
“We’re looking for the federal government to be forthcoming, and we certainly have a concern for the health and well-being of these children,” she said Thursday. “The more information we are provided, the better we can deal with it. But we’re in the dark, which leaves us with many unanswered questions and little ability to do anything.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.