Lane: Fixing immigration law to end influx of minors

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district office in Manhattan. (Jan. 29, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

Congress likes to put fancy titles on its legislative handiwork, but it should probably just call everything the Law of Unintended Consequences, especially immigration bills.

The 1965 Cuban Adjustment Act gave people fleeing the Communist island the right to legal residence once they reach U.S. soil. Over time, this evolved into the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, whereby the U.S. government could exclude a Cuban rafter caught in the surf off Key West -- but not after he had touched the beach.

President George W. Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008, thinking he was fighting the global traffic in sex slaves, many of them children. The Democratic Congress that passed the bill agreed. Hence its title, an homage to 19th-century Britain's greatest foe of the slave trade. Half a decade later, the act has mutated into a source of chaos, the victims of which are children, and the greatest beneficiaries human traffickers.


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The law's special mistake was to guarantee an immigration hearing to unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States on the theory they might be victims of sex trafficking and to let them live with a U.S.-based family until a judge was available.

Kids from Mexico and Canada were excepted. But the bill's authors apparently forgot about Central America or underestimated the desire of Central Americans who reside in the United States, with or without documents, to extract their children from violence and poverty back home, even at the risk of a dangerous journey. They failed to anticipate that trafficking mafias would market temporary entry pending delayed hearings as a form of "permiso" ("permit") and can charge families $10,000 per child to pursue it.

So, here we are: The Wilberforce Act, logical and humane on paper, has been overthrown by an influx of Central American kids. They're sprawled on the floors of dingy detention centers across the Southwest -- if they didn't get lost, kidnapped or killed during the 1,500-mile trek through Mexico.

If they do find their way to a stable home in the United States, the children will likely skip hearings and grow up undocumented, living in the shadows even under the version of immigration reform favored by President Barack Obama.

This isn't anyone's idea of sustainable immigration; at least it shouldn't be. Some call the situation a humanitarian crisis. I prefer "national scandal."

The administration has, belatedly, started countering trafficker misinformation in Central America. Obama has a $3.7 billion plan to provide housing, services and the due process called for in the Wilberforce Act.

Yet the key is to fix the law: to permit exclusion of unaccompanied Central American minors, as is already the case for Mexicans and Canadians. Only by showing people there is nothing to be gained by paying traffickers for the traumatic voyage will the chaos cease.

But it is a sad fact the U.S. government returns migrants to horrible situations every day. Just ask the 1,357 Cuban rafters the Coast Guard plucked from the Caribbean in fiscal 2013. The gang problem is a perennial one in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, not new. Those who defend the status quo are defending a system that was well-intended but is riddled with loopholes that enrich gangs, endanger children and promote political backlash against immigration by associating with border chaos.

The rule of law is one of the benefits immigrants seek in the United States. Step one in dealing with the border crisis should be to re-establish it.

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