But according to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58 percent of children arriving from Mexico and Central America are probably eligible for humanitarian protection under international conventions.
A similar study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, estimates that about 40 percent were eligible for some form of immigration relief — such as asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, or visas for victims of crime or trafficking.
As security and gang truces deteriorate in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, those fleeing may argue they are afraid to return because they or their relatives were threatened for not joining a gang, said Stephen Legomsky, a law professor at Washington University, St. Louis.
“I could easily imagine a significant number of these people showing credible fear,” Legomsky said, which could lead to added delays since federal immigration courts are already backlogged.
“The administration is in a tough spot,” he said.
While immigrant-rights advocates oppose expanding family detentions, some also acknowledged Friday that the crisis has put the administration in a bind.
“We need to recognize that they have to take some action in either expediting cases or finding some resolution in who’s coming and why,” said Michelle Brane, director of detention and asylum at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Congress in 2005 directed Homeland Security officials to keep immigrant families together, either by releasing them or detaining them as a group in humane settings.
Two years later, the ACLU sued the department, saying it was illegally imprisoning families with children under 17 under inhumane conditions at the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Texas. The lawsuits were settled, and the center stopped housing families.
The government currently operates only one immigrant family detention center in Berks County, Pa. Brane praised the facility, but said it can only house 96 people at most, and only for weeks or months at a time.