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Obama's illegal immigration plan alarms migrant childrens' advocates

The sudden influx of children has left the U.S. government scrambling to come up with possible housing options
Obama seeks aid to stem surge in illegal border crossings 01:43

News that the President Obama is seeking more than $2 billion to deal with the flood of unaccompanied children coming across the southern border is widely seen as a welcome sign for the overburdened border patrol agents and workers tasked with caring for the children once they come into U.S. custody.

Many migrant children making trek to U.S. on their own 02:10

But the president's plan to ask Congress to grant more authority to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to speed up the removal of unaccompanied minors who might not be eligible to remain in the U.S. has spread alarm among advocates for the children.

Former officials with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) say it is an important step toward stemming the flow of children crossing the border - already estimated at 52,000 this year - but their advocates say that the government stands to deny unaccompanied minors important due process protections and may be returning them to dangerous situations.

"We're extremely concerned that the administration is continuing to refuse to see this as a refugee issue and that they are really taking drastic steps to roll back a long tradition of child welfare-friendly policies in this country," Michelle Brane, the Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission, told CBS News. The government is "really abdicating our national and international responsibilities and leadership on protection issues," she said.

Parts of the president's announcement have been welcome: the federal agencies involved in detaining, housing and caring for children have been strained, and additional resources can help alleviate crowded conditions and the long wait times that some children have in CBP custody before being transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Additionally, an increase in resources for the perennially backlogged immigration court system is widely seen as a positive step that can help children who make asylum or refugee claims.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, backed the move in an interview on CBS News' "Face the Nation" Sunday.

"I don't think the flow will stop until a message of deterrence is sent back to Central America," he said. "I think a message of deterrence, I know the president came out with a strong statement today. I applaud that. But I think, you know, we have to be humanitarian at the same time, let them know that if they do come, they cannot stay here; otherwise, we'll never stop the flow."

What advocates are most concerned about is the possibility that the administration will seek to alter the law that requires the U.S. to take all children from non-contiguous countries into custody when they are apprehended at the border.

Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that helps find attorneys for unaccompanied children in the U.S. immigration system, told CBS News she believes the president is seeking authority for CBP to treat children coming from Central America more like those who come from Mexico. Because they come from a country adjacent to the U.S., Mexican children are only taken into custody - and later go before an immigration judge - if a border patrol agent determines they have a fear of returning to their home country, are at risk of human trafficking, or lack the capacity to be sent home alone.

This kind of screening "is fundamentally unfair to children," Young said. "This is drive-by due process that is out of keeping with the fundamental principles of U.S. fairness."

Kevin Appleby, the migration policy director for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has studied unaccompanied child migration, said a change in the laws to how those children are treated could leave them without due process protections and the U.S. in violation of international refugee law.

Migrant children describe their dangerous journey into U.S. 03:10

"Many of these children have valid asylum claims because they are targeted by organized crime networks in Central America," Appleby told CBS News. "What the administration is proposing is that the process for adjudicating those claims be shortened, without the benefit of an immigration judge or legal representation. This will severely reduce a child's chances of receiving U.S. protection. It is akin to sending a child back into a burning building and locking the door."

Nearly 60 percent of children who were interviewed for a study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were found to have been forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that could indicate a need for international protection.

Two former CBP officials told CBS News that Mr. Obama's moves are not the only steps that will help stop the surge of unaccompanied children, but do represent a faster way to slow the numbers as the U.S. pursues long-term strategies like strengthening economic and safety conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the three Central American countries from which most of the children are coming.

"It's a very critical issue and it does call for a whole series of solutions and there's no single solution that's going to stop this issue," said Jayson Ahern of the Chertoff Group, a former acting commissioner of CBP. "Returning a positive measure. Making sure it's done safely and making sure it's done expeditiously" is a wise move, he said.

"Those are all things that are going to go ahead and slow the flow," Ahern added.

The move will certainly address a chief Republican complaint - that the Obama administration's policies such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) - the 2012 policy that suspends deportation for many immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children before 2007 - and shifting enforcement priorities have given Central Americans the impression that if their children reach the U.S., they will be allowed to stay.

"If people are starting to doubt how easy that is I think it obviously serves the purpose of discouraging them," said Steve Atkiss, a founding partner at Command Consulting Group who served as chief of staff at CBP.

"What needs to be done there is a surge of resources to actually secure that portion of the border so people know that it's difficult to get in," Atkiss said. "So long as people feel like they can easily enter and once they're in they're going to be released into American society they're just going to continue to come."

Still, advocates doubt that heightened removals will deter parents from sending their children to the U.S.

"If you're in a burning house you're going to get out anyway you can," Brane said. "No parent sends their child into a dangerous situation unless they have no choice, so I really think these parents have no choice. That's why they're sending their children."

Young said the administration "hit the panic button" on the surge of immigrants with the latest announcement and didn't try other policies that might have "had the same end result, which is to bring order and slow the flow of people."

In addition to getting more judges into the immigration system to process children's cases more quickly and working to better conditions in Central American countries, Young said two other alternatives might have stemmed the flow of children to the U.S.: allowing people to seek U.S. asylum from within their home countries before beginning the journey northward through Mexico, and increasing the ability of other, more stable nations in the region such as Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua to handle refugees.

"There are alternatives here that haven't been tested they've defaulted to the most drastic response," Young said.

Still, Ahern argued that there needs to be a faster response to those arriving in the U.S. to deter smuggling networks and people trying to send children to the U.S. alone.

"These things absolutely do have an impact on the level of smuggling," he said. "If people think they are going to be received, processed and released [with no consequence]...then it's going to continue to persist," he said.

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