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In A Unanimously Passed Law, The Seeds Of An Immigration Controversy

Jul 10, 2014
Originally published on July 10, 2014 5:04 pm

The handling of unaccompanied minors crossing the border is governed by a law that was passed in 2008, before President Obama took office. For more about the law, Robert Siegel speaks with David Abramowitz, who helped work on the law when it passed. Abramowitz is currently the vice president of Humanity United.

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Now, more on the law that governs the handling of the unaccompanied children at the border. David Abramowitz, who's now with the foundation Humanity United helped write it. He was chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2008. Abramowitz says among many things the law did to prevent and combat human trafficking was to reassign responsibility for unaccompanied, undocumented children from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Health and Human Services.

DAVID ABRAMOWITZ: I think the feeling was that the Department of Homeland Security wasn't really prepared to deal with the kind of challenges that these children face. These were often cases of child welfare. They have detention facilities that had a wide range of different kinds of individuals there - criminals, adults.

In addition, the idea that they would be detained by the Department of Homeland Security and then there would be a rapid adjudication of who they were and what the problems were was also a challenge.

SIEGEL: Why did the law create a different and more caring regime for kids from noncontiguous countries, than say for kids from Mexico who might face exactly the same issues?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think there were two different considerations in the bill, one was when you were on the border with these children, the people you had to deal with for their return and to check about who they were, were right on the border and you could rely on cooperation. With the faraway countries, the situation was very different.

SIEGEL: What we hear now is, is since the law took effect, that between the time that the child would enter this country and the time that their actually is an adjudication of whether the child has some right to stay, that can be four or five years. Was that kind of timeframe on your mind as you were drafting the law?

ABRAMOWITZ: Not at all. I think that the law provided for a process by which HHS would gain custody of these children, and then there would be some assistance to them so they could know what their rights were and what their right choices were once they were here in the country. It's really a question of the resources that are available to actually implement the law that has led to, what I understand, are sometimes quite lengthy delays.

SIEGEL: Can you accept that in addition to the conditions in Central America, that the record of this law and the delays of actually adjudicating kids' cases in the U.S. might be a case of unintended consequences - might be convincing kids, hey, we can have four years in the states, work, maybe even go to school?

ABRAMOWITZ: Yeah, I'm not sure I follow that argument for a couple of reasons. One is, is that as you said, the bill was passed in 2008. And in 2009, 2010, 2011, you didn't really see any significant influx of children. The second is, they're from primarily Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. If this was such a huge draw because of these lag time periods, we'd also see children from other countries.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to wrestle with this idea though that the problem that the bill you worked on addresses human trafficking is not the same thing as migration. And somebody who even goes a thousand miles all the way across Mexico may not be doing that as a victim of traffickers, but may be seeking a better life, getting away from a horrible existence in some place. And is there perhaps a mismatch here between the very problem this law was intended to address - human trafficking - and the process that it is being applied to, which his migration?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think that you can't necessarily treat them separately. There are many kinds of human trafficking, but in many ways, as it was conceptualized in the late '90s and into 2000, it was the notion that it was the dark side of globalization. That migration was a good thing for many people but because of the movement of people away from their home communities, they become vulnerable and we need to find ways to address that vulnerability as lawful migration takes place.

SIEGEL: Mr. Abramowitz, thank you very much.

ABRAMOWITZ: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: David Abramowitz, now of Humanity United. Back in 2008, chief counselor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee when it passed the law that we're hearing invoked about unaccompanied minors along the Mexican border.


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