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As young immigrants rise, Guatemalan data show fewer being returned

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WASHINGTON – The White House and Department of Homeland Security have mounted a campaign in recent days to tell children who cross the border they will not be eligible for deferred action and will be sent home.

But data from Guatemala indicate that, in recent years, fewer and fewer children have been sent home to that country.

Less than 10 percent of Guatemalan children who came to the U.S. illegally over the last five years wound up back home, based on a comparison of numbers from the two governments.

And that percentage has fallen as the numbers of children coming here has skyrocketed. Guatemala got 377 children back from the U.S. in fiscal 2013 compared to 110 so far this year, while the number coming here from Guatemala jumped from 8,068 to 12,670 over the same period.

That surge is part of a flood of children crossing the Southwest border from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that reached 51,279 this month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

CBP provides data on children entering the country, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement provides numbers of deportees. But ICE has not released numbers of deportees broken down by age.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act to get those numbers, however, the Migration Policy Institute reported this month that just 496 youths had been returned to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador combined in 2013. That was down from 2,311 to those three countries in 2008.

Multiple requests this week for comment on the numbers from the White House, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security were not returned.

But one advocate said the low return numbers could be a result of the time it takes to get through immigration proceedings here, since there are few attorneys and a backlog of cases.

“It takes awhile for these cases to make it through the courts,” said Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman from Kids in Need of Defense, which provides legal representation for children in immigration proceedings.

“You’re not going to see kids coming in and then being sent back right away so there’s not a correlation necessarily there,” McKenna said.

She said the numbers could also be skewed by older children, who arrive as minors but turn 18 during immigration proceedings. That person is then counted as an adult.

“They’re in the adult numbers, so they’re not in those kids numbers anymore,” McKenna said.

It comes as administration officials are trying to spread the message in Central American countries that children who come here will not automatically be allowed to stay here.

Vice President Joe Biden carried that message to Guatemala last week.

“Let’s get this straight,” Biden said during remarks to the press in Guatemala. “Any minor who arrived in the past seven years is not eligible for deferred action. No new immigrant since 2011 is eligible for the earned citizenship provisions proposed in the comprehensive U.S. immigration reform pending before Congress.”

Biden said resources for immigration proceedings are being increased, to process children as quickly as possible.

“Make no mistake, once an individual’s case is fully heard, and if he or she does not qualify for asylum, he or she will be removed from the United States and returned home,” he said, according to the White House.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reiterated the message this weekend in an open letter to the parents of children crossing the border. It said that “anyone who is apprehended crossing our border illegally is a priority for deportation, regardless of age.”

While ICE has not released numbers of deported children, Guatemala does provide annual numbers of citizens repatriated, broken down by gender and whether the deportee is an adult or a minor. Guatemala, which has repatriation numbers back to 2005, shows deportations of children from the United States have been steadily decreasing.

Since fiscal 2009, the number of Guatemalan children entering the U.S. illegally has increased more than tenfold, from 1,115 to 12,670 so far this year.

At the same time, the number of children being sent back has dropped from 655 during fiscal 2009, to just 109 this year as of June 20.