Explainer: What’s happening with children at the southern border?

June 28, 2019

Recent outcry over issues at the United States–Mexico border broke out after reporting from the Associated Press revealed unconscionable conditions for child migrants in government custody in a facility near El Paso, Texas. The AP story highlighted concerns from a group of attorneys who interviewed 60 children at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) site. Their accounts revealed safety and sanitation concerns with the housing conditions and a lack of adequate adult supervision. Here is what you should know about this situation at the southern border.

Is there a surge in people crossing the southern border?

The number of people crossing the southern border in 2019 has increased dramatically, according to CBP data. The number of apprehensions year-to-date at 593,507 is more than double the number of apprehensions of any of the last five years. This current increase is even more significant because the trend was in the opposite direction for decades. Since the peak of 1.6 million apprehensions at the southern border in 2000, 2017 saw the lowest number of apprehensions since 1971.

In addition, the demographics of those crossing the border changed significantly. Over the last 10 years, the trend shifted from primarily single men from Mexico to overwhelmingly family units from Central America. This presents new challenges for processing asylum claims and managing the family units who have been detained. Further, as discussed below, Congress had not provided appropriate levels of funding to meet this crisis. CBP struggled with limited resources as the administration sought to manage this situation and impose new detention policies.

Who is being held in these detention facilities?

While a majority of those detained are adult men, the number and treatment of children in these detention centers garnered national attention. When migrants make an asylum claim in the United States, according to U.S. immigration law, they have the right to a court hearing if they pass an initial screening to prove they meet the legal criteria to be granted asylum. Due to a longstanding backlog in asylum and immigration cases and partisan gridlock on resources for immigration courts, previous administrations released migrants waiting for their court dates, which in some cases can take several years. Even though 92% of migrants seeking asylum did appear in court for their hearings from 2013-2017, according to the Department of Justice, this practice has come under criticism. As a response, the Trump Administration sought to hold asylum seekers in detention facilities in a greater number of circumstances while waiting for their hearings.

Is immigration law different for children?

At the center of the government’s policies toward child migrants is a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores Settlement Agreement. Flores directs that children who are unaccompanied or who have been removed from their parents during the process of immigrating are to be transferred to a licensed facility within three to five days of apprehension, and a max of 20 days during times of emergency influx, according to the nonprofit Human Rights First. This means, practically, that families cannot be detained together as a unit for longer than 20 days. After that time, children are to be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The Flores Settlement also lays out housing condition standards, including the requirement of “safe and sanitary facilities” among many others, all while the government makes a “prompt and continuous effort toward family reunification and release” for children.

What sparked public and media attention about these facilities?

The Associated Press reported that children were held in overcrowded and undersupervised facilities for as many as 27 days. The scenes unfolding were of children sleeping on the floor, consoling one another, and some with health issues like the flu and lice. Rep. Michael McCaul (R–Texas), former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, stated that the current migrant housing conditions are the “worst [he has] ever seen” and Vice President Mike Pence said the conditions were “totally unacceptable” for these children.

How long have these issues been going on?

During the early 2000s, much was done to deal with the high amount of southern border crossings including the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which authorized the construction of nearly 700 miles of physical barriers along the border. According to CPB staffing data reported by Politifact, the number of Border Patrol agents at the southwest border nearly doubled since 2005. While the number of detainees dramatically dipped between 2014 and 2015 when the Obama administration redirected its focus to removing serious offenders and recent border crossers in 2014, the picture over the last few years has changed. In 2019, there is thus far a 300% increase in the number of family units apprehended at the southern border, causing the overflow of detention facilities.

Due to the current massive surge in migrants crossing the southern border and making asylum claims, both CBP and ORR are experiencing significant resource shortfalls. The failure of Congress to provide appropriate levels of funding to manage the surge is due in part to the partisan debate between the House, Senate, and administration over related immigration policy issues.

What is the U.S. government doing about the issue?

On Tuesday, June 25, the AP followed up with news that most of the children at the Texas facility had been transferred to shelters run by HHS ORR. The story quotes ORR spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer who said that unaccompanied children, “are waiting too long in CBP facilities that are not designed to care for children. These children should now all be in HHS care as of Tuesday.”

Congress also responded this week with emergency supplemental spending bills aimed at meeting basic needs in these shelters and alleviating the immense pressure to the system under stress at the border. Both chambers authorized around $4.5 billion but differed in the ways in which and agencies to whom the money would be appropriated. When the House bill, passed by Democrats with a party-line vote of 230-195, came to the Republican-led Senate, it predictably failed. The Senate then took up its own bill, S. 811, which was developed by a bipartisan group of Senators on the Appropriations Committee. The Senate version passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 84-8. Late Thursday night, June 27, the House considered and passed the Senate bill in a bipartisan vote of 305-102, which means that a bill providing new funding is now headed to the president’s desk.

Assuming the legislation is signed into law by the president, this bill would provide additional funding for DHS and HHS for migrant processing facilities and refugee assistance programs. The bill also provides funding for the Department of Justice for immigration judges, the Department of Defense for military assistance, as well as overtime pay for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

How is ERLC engaged in this debate in Washington?

On Thursday morning, while Congress was considering these bills, the ERLC, along with the Evangelical Immigration Table, sent a letter to President Trump, Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi, and Leader McConnell expressing concern for the inhumane conditions in which children are being held at the southern border. The letter calls for multiple actions and policy changes including supplemental funding, additional personnel trained to care for children, respect for asylum laws and family unity, and restoration of foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Russell Moore signed and commented on the letter, 

“As Christians, Jesus calls us to respond to the cries of those in need around us. The conditions at the border ought to prompt all of us to remember that these migrant children are not a mere problem to be solved. They bear the image of God, and are endowed by him with dignity and worth. Jesus loves them, and so should we. The problems at the border will require complex solutions and long-term strategies by our government—both Congress and the administration coming together. In the meantime, we should do everything we can do to help alleviate the suffering of those who are attempting to flee violence in their home countries.”

How can Christians help?

As Christians, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God and endowed with immeasurable dignity and worthy of respect and love. Because the Bible is clear that we are to love our immigrant neighbors, we must seek ways to alleviate unjust suffering for migrants wherever we can. Southern Baptists are on the frontlines serving immigrants through the Baptist Convention of New Mexico and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as just two of many examples. Now is a great time to join them and serve immigrants in your community. Several organizations like World Relief and World Vision, as well as many local organizations like these identified by the Texas Tribune are serving at the southern border, providing legal aid and essential supplies. Christians can join in their efforts by offering their talents, partnership, and prayers.  

ERLC policy interns Alyssa Koelemay and Nick Raineri contributed to this article.

Jeff Pickering

Jeff Pickering is the director of the Initiative on Faith & Public Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a leading public policy think tank in Washington, DC and the initiative exists to equip Christian college students for faithful engagement in public life. Jeff moved to Washington … Read More

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24