HOUSTON - Since January, more than 48,000 unaccompanied children have been detained crossing the southern border, according to numbers released by Customs and Border Protection. These cases are part of a growing backlog in immigration court and can take years to work through the system.
Pending cases at the border
While the number of pending of unaccompanied children cases has grown at a fast rate since 2014, the numbers can also be overwhelming when it comes to legal representation.
“We have to do triage on the legal front as well and prioritize and get through as many as we can,” Houston immigration attorney Brandon Roché said.
Roché has helped represent hundreds of children seeking to remain in the United States. He said during a recent trip to the border he and eight other attorneys had to interview more than 100 unaccompanied children in a single weekend.
“On an individual basis about how much time do you think you get per child?” KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold asked.
“An hour, maybe,” Roché said.
“How much time should it take?” asked Arnold.
“Oh, ideally it would take days,” Roché said. “We don't have the time to do all the things best practices might say (about) working with a small, traumatized child.”
High occupancy rate at shelters
After being released from Border Patrol detention, unaccompanied children are sent to shelters until they are reunified with family members. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 12,400 children were housed in shelters as of July 8. ORR reports, this fiscal year, shelters have between 82% and 90% monthly occupancy rate. ORR numbers also show the time children spend in these shelters before being placed with a sponsor ranged from 91 days in October 2018 down to 48 days in April, the latest numbers available.
According to figures posted on USASpending.gov, a total of $775,609,817 in federal grant money this fiscal year has been obligated to organizations that help care for unaccompanied children. To see more grant obligations for the care of unaccompanied children, click here.
Roché said the government recently streamlined required background checks for immediate family members seeking to reunite with children who crossed the border alone. He said that has helped cut down on the time these children spend in shelters.
“It's a safer setting for the child, a more home environment and it's cheaper for the government to have them living with a loved one than caring for these children in a detained setting,” Roché said.
However, he said he has seen other hurdles arise, such as family member’s immigration status making them hesitant to claim a child.
“You've had specific cases where an immediate family member would not come to claim a relative because of fear of being deported?” Arnold asked.
“Absolutely, yes,” Roché said. “The government has been going after those people for immigration violations themselves.”
Roché said that can delay a child being released from a shelter to a sponsor.
“That scares people off, it scares sponsors and that means they’re then going to have to find a secondary sponsor,” Roché said.
Sponsors are typically family members who promise to care for a child and make sure they attend all immigration court proceedings. Roché added a very small percentage of children who cross the border alone come to the U.S. as true orphans.
Most sponsors are family members who are charged with caring for the child as well as making sure they show up to all future immigration proceedings.
The below numbers are for October 2018 through May.
Unaccompanied children released to sponsors by county:
- Harris County 3,073
- LA County 2,198
- Miami-Dade County 1,189
- Palm Beach County 1,099
A massive backlog of cases
The pending unaccompanied children cases are only part of a large backlog in immigration court. According to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the number of cases currently pending in immigration court is 908,552. Part of this backlog is due to the growing number of asylum applications filed each year. Part of the more then $4 billion Congress recently approved to address what’s happening on the border will go toward hiring more immigration judges.
Is a new facility coming to Houston?
KPRC 2 Investigates has learned the U.S. General Services Administration is seeking to lease space in Houston for a facility that could house approximately 500 unaccompanied children. As of this time no specific properties have been chosen and which organization would operate the facility has not yet been released. Click here to see a map of the part of town where the government would like the facility to be located.
Officials with GSA would only comment that the lease procurement is active. According to the government’s proposal, the estimated occupancy date would be June 2020. Click here to read a housing plan for this space. If you would like to read the government’s full notice, click here.
Copyright 2019 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.