President Donald Trump called for changes Tuesday to laws governing how young illegal immigrants are processed after being detained at the border, saying the policies force immigration authorities to resettle “killers” in the U.S.
Meeting with homeland security officials and lawmakers at the White House, Trump said the reforms are needed to battle transnational criminal organizations, particularly MS-13. The notorious gang frequently recruits unaccompanied alien minors (UAC) from Central America who have been resettled in the interior of the country, according to state and federal law enforcement officials.
As Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted at the meeting, there are two provisions of immigration law that require border authorities to handle UACs and family units differently than other illegal immigrants they detain. The policies were meant to reduce human trafficking and guarantee the humane treatment of migrant children, but they also incentivize illegal immigration, according to the Trump administration.
“These loopholes create a pull factor that invites more illegal immigration and encourages parents to pay and entrust their children to criminal organizations that will smuggle them in,” the White House said in a statement last week.
The first policy is not actually an act of Congress, but a Supreme Court-ordered settlement from 1997. Known as the Flores consent decree, the agreement requires immigration authorities to release alien minors from immigration detention without “unnecessary delay” and to place them in the “least restrictive setting” possible. In practice, this usually means with a parent or other relative already in the U.S.
The other policy comes from a 2008 update to the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which lays out special procedures for alien minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada. The law requires immigration authorities to transfer UACs to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for care and processing, part of which entails guaranteeing to the “greatest extent practicable” pro bono legal counsel.
As a result of this legal framework, UACs from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — are frequently released into the custody of family members or other sponsors in the interior of the country, many of whom who are illegal aliens themselves. Once resettled, the majority of UACs never show up for immigration court dates: About two-thirds of all removal orders for UACs from 2015 to 2017 resulted from a failure to appear for a hearing, according to immigration authorities.
The Trump administration has highlighted the public safety vulnerability of the current system by pointing to the recruitment of MS-13 members from this population. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation in October netted 214 MS-13 members, a third of whom had arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.
At Tuesday’s roundtable, Trump reiterated his demand that reforming UAC policies should be part of the border security component of a bill to legalize the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He said negotiations over a DACA replacement presented an opportunity for Republican lawmakers address the unintended consequences of UAC laws.
“So we have one good shot at it, and it’s now,” Trump said. “So hopefully you get it done.”