A timely op-ed penned by AILA South Florida’s Jordana Hart was published in yesterday’s South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Ms. Hart’s insightful opinion piece discusses the humanitarian and refugee crisis surrounding the wave of immigrant children seeking refuge and a chance to reunite with their parents in the U.S.  As her article points out, our broken immigration system intends to quickly deport these minors despite many legitimate claims to asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, family reunification, U and T visa protection against crime and trafficking, and other humanitarian relief.

The piece ran in the Sun Sentinel print edition yesterday and is available online to subscribers at the publication’s website. Full text of the article is also included below.

New refugee crisis calls for change in immigration policy

By Jordana A. Hart

7:54 a.m. EDT June 25, 2014

Come December, as many as 80,000 Central American children will have walked, jumped freight trains, starved, and suffered rape and other abuse to throw themselves at the mercy of U.S. border agents, asking to be protected and, in many cases, reunited with family already here.

Immigrant rights groups project the number could soar to 130,000 children next year, more than all the people who came from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, making this the largest refugee surge on U.S. soil.

President Obama has called the mass child exodus an “urgent humanitarian crisis” and the U.S. Department of Justice is already launching a joint effort, justice Americorps Legal Services, to represent non-detained youngsters under 16.

Yet Jeh Johnson, the president’s Homeland Security Secretary, is not sounding at all humanitarian. “Those apprehended at the border are priorities for removal,” he said at a recent press conference. “They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age.” He and Vice President Biden are urging Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the sending countries, to quickly repatriate them.

Ours is no longer simply a broken immigration system; it is a hellish one if it can’t even treat children as special under the law. DHS apparently intends to deport them as quickly as possible, even though many may have legitimate claims to asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, family reunification, U and T visa protection against crime and trafficking, and other humanitarian relief. But these protections require court hearings and legal preparation. They require even the youngest to appear before a judge. They require time.

Let’s call this what it is – a refugee crisis. The number of children making this forced migration of more than a thousand miles has doubled each year since 2010, according to published reports. Journalists at the border say some of the children as young as 4 have notes pinned to their clothes giving authorities contact information for a U.S. relative. Miami, one of 10 cities being sent children for detention and deportation proceeding, has seen a threefold jump in the number of kids needing legal help since April, says Cheryl Little, who heads Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami.

For those tempted to argue that the children are economic migrants or trying to get in under a law for undocumented children called DACA (for which they don’t qualify), the U.S. is not their only destination. The UN Refugee Agency in a recent report found that “combined, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize documented a 435% increase in the number of asylum applications” filed by El Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans.

Why can’t parents just leave the U.S. to get their children? Most of the parents are undocumented or in a protected or deferred status that does not allow them to travel abroad. For them, leaving the U.S. could mean being barred from returning for a decade or more, and losing the only financial life line their children have. (Remittances from the U.S. last year accounted for 16.5 % of GDP for El Salvador, 15.7% for Honduras and 10% for Guatemala, more than foreign aid, according to the World Bank.)

The UN says a refugee is someone forced to flee her country because of persecution, war, or violence, someone with a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The United States is a party to international treaties regulating the treatment of refugees and, in particular, children.

In April, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush famously called the act of illegally crossing the U.S. border to join family an “act of love.” Courageous, desperate children fleeing gangs, narco-traffic, bloody violence and abuse, and seeking a chance to reunite with their parents, is an act of love that deserves more than Jeh Johnson’s summary deportation.

Jordana A. Hart is co-chair of the media advocacy committee of the S. FL. chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.