With tens of thousands of vulnerable children crossing into the United States from Mexico without their parents, border states are facing a humanitarian crisis.
Many of the children being apprehended at the border are fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries. Others have been lured by false promises that if they can just survive the dangerous journey and reach the United States, they will be allowed to remain.
The U.S. response must be multipronged. We must ensure humane treatment of these vulnerable children, and we must also take action to address the root causes of this surge in crossings by unaccompanied children.
Three out of every four unaccompanied children taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol this year have come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Not surprisingly, these countries have all recently experienced an escalation in violence associated with drug cartels and gangs.
Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed more than 400 children who fled to the United States from Central America and Mexico to determine why they left their homes. Nearly half said that violence inflicted by cartels or gangs had affected them personally, and 20% said they had been abused or personally experienced violence in their own homes.
It is important to understand the laws that govern how these children must be treated and when they must be sent back to their home countries. When unaccompanied children arrive in the U.S. from one of these Central American countries, they are required to appear before an immigration judge to determine whether they will be returned to the home country.
As required by international and U.S. law, federal officials screen the children to determine whether they warrant protection. Instances that merit such protection can include violence, abuse, abandonment and human trafficking. If protection is not warranted, the children must be returned to their home country.
There are steps we can take to address the root causes of this crisis, including actions by the departments of State and Homeland Security. The State Department must take a more proactive role with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to help them address the internal conflicts that are leading so many children to flee their homes.
To that end, I am encouraged that Vice President Joe Biden recently visited Guatemala to discuss this crisis in person, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is scheduled to do the same in July.
Federal agencies must also work more closely with these governments to crack down on human smugglers and reduce false advertising about our immigration policies.
The leaders of these Central American countries bear responsibility too. They should immediately begin working to dispel widespread misinformation that all children entering the United States will be allowed to stay in the country indefinitely.
In the interim, federal, state and local officials must ensure that children apprehended at the border are treated humanely.
Federal agencies must be provided with resources to shelter, feed and clothe these children, with much of the money coming from the existing Unaccompanied Alien Children program.
The Senate Appropriations Committee recently doubled funding for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program, to $1.94 billion. This is a good start, and the House of Representatives should match that figure.
Federal agencies must also make it a priority to protect these minors from mistreatment, both while they are in the government's custody and when they are released into the hands of family members or sponsors.
The Obama administration deserves credit for redirecting funds and boosting staff to provide legal services through its justice AmeriCorps program, and eligible lawyers and paralegals should be encouraged to apply for this noble and important program.
I applaud the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review for expanding juvenile dockets across the country to handle immigration cases for these children. Otherwise, these cases could easily get lost in current backlogs, forcing these children to live in the shadows indefinitely.
It is also imperative that child advocates be provided for these children, both while they are in federal custody and upon release to family members or sponsors. The children need representation as their court cases advance, and no child should be forced to navigate the U.S. legal system alone.
At my request, the Senate appropriations bill also provides dedicated funding for child advocates and legal services. These funds will be sorely needed in the coming year.
U.S. values and leadership in the world demand that we provide just, humane treatment of these vulnerable children, even as we work to address the causes of this crisis. Congress and the administration must act quickly to accomplish both objectives.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun