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Editorial: Migrant children push U.S. system’s buttons

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What do we do with these children?

Increasingly young people illegally crossing into the United States over its southern border with Mexico are unescorted by family members. While some are from Mexico, most are from Central America. Some hope to locate relatives or find work. Some are just trying to escape poverty and crime in their home countries.

Children includes all border crossers under the age of 18 – and the conditions they flee have caused some of them to grow up fast – but an increasing number of those caught are younger than 13.

The numbers are stunning. The U.S. government estimates that in the past eight months, 47,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended. And in a year’s time, that number could be 60,000 caught. To put that into perspective, 60,000 is more than twice the number of babies born annually in New Mexico – about 27,000.

The influx is overwhelming the U.S. immigration system’s ability to process and house them. Within 72 hours of being detained, children are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to be housed in shelters until they can be reunited with parents or guardians. The average stay last year was 45 days.

It’s costly – the administration expects caring for these children to cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2.28 billion this year. So President Obama asked for an extra $1.4 billion in federal money to cope with what he calls an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

It’s true these are children in crisis and in need of care. But even if Congress passed a coherent policy, what do you do with children who cross the border with no family to care for them? In New Mexico, at least, we know the foster care system is already overwhelmed.

Their reasons for coming to this country are understandable and poignant. But it appears there is yet another, costly factor to consider if Congress ever gets around to reforming immigration law.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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