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The cost of keeping undocumented minors in the U.S.

September 3, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
The influx of unaccompanied minors across the southern border has mounted pressure for reform, but executive action on the issue has slowed. Jeffrey Brown talks to Thomas Hodgson, sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, who has overseen the placement of 989 unaccompanied minors in his region, to discuss the exploitation many of these children encounter.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As word surfaces that President Obama is delaying a decision on whether to take executive action on immigration, a new poll finds the public’s priorities on the issue have shifted.

A Pew Research Center survey released today showed a spike in favor of making border security the priority and a drop in support for creating a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens or making both matters an equal priority.

The divide among the public is one reflected in our occasional series of one-on-one interviews about how to handle the border crisis.

Jeffrey Brown has our latest conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In our series, we have talked about the influx of unaccompanied minors with Border Patrol guards, immigration lawyers, ranchers and others, some living and working at the border, others, as with tonight’s guest, far away, 2,000 miles away in this case, in Bristol County, Massachusetts.

Thomas Hodgson is the sheriff there, and he joins us now.

And welcome to you.

And let me ask you the question we have asked our other guests first. Where specifically do you, as a sheriff in Southern Massachusetts, see and feel the impact of illegal immigration, specifically of unaccompanied minors?

THOMAS HODGSON, Bristol County, Massachusetts: Well, we have about 989 unaccompanied minors that have arrived in Massachusetts and been placed in foster care since January 1 through July 31 of this year.

And where we’re foreseeing the impact is in schools throughout our county and throughout the state, and, as well, we’re seeing it in the exploitation of these individuals when criminals are targeting them, knowing that, number one, they don’t speak the language, and, two, if they’re here illegally and they’re earning money somewhere, they’re probably getting paid cash.

And they’re being — they’re being exploited and being — being robbed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that exploitation problem something that you’re unable to deal with, I mean, to protect them from that?

THOMAS HODGSON: Well, yes, it’s very difficult, because they always want to work under the radar.

They don’t make themselves known. They don’t report it to the police. And we don’t know just how much more empowered some of these Americanized criminals are becoming when they continue to commit more and more crimes, ultimately, perhaps against people beyond the illegal immigrant community.

JEFFREY BROWN: The young people that you are encountering, why do you believe they’re coming to the United States and even to Massachusetts, far from the border?

THOMAS HODGSON: Well, I don’t think there’s any question why they’re coming. And it’s been verified by the EPIC report done by the El Paso Intelligence Center. It was leaked out several months ago.

And what they learned in this report was that, in 2012, when the president signed the DACA act, and the — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, there’s an immediate correlation between that signing of the — of DACA and the sudden influx by the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming here.

And in that report, they interviewed 230 individuals who came here illegally. Of the 230, 219 said:  The reason I came here was because I was told I could stay.

And we know that the homicides are down in all three of those countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We also know that there was no sudden change in the culture or the atmosphere within those countries. So the surge was directly related to the president’s new policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but we have certainly heard from other people in this series that — about the dire straits that a lot of these young people are in, fearing for their lives in their home countries.

You simply don’t believe that they’re coming from desperate situations and would leave because of that?

THOMAS HODGSON: Look, these desperate situations they’re talking about have not suddenly just emerged since 2012.

And I think if you look at the surge in numbers, it’s pretty amazing that we have had 37,000 children placed in foster care since January 1 to July 31 of this year. That didn’t just suddenly have some change in those countries. They have had problems in those countries for a long time. So to suggest that suddenly we’re seeing 90,000 come across, now next year possibly 145,000, that this is some sudden, dramatic shift in the danger within those countries, it’s just not so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what do you want to see from the federal government?

THOMAS HODGSON: Well, a couple of things.

Number one, we need to change the law immediately so that these individuals coming in from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are treated the same way the Mexicans are, which is there is no right to trial, you get turned around and immediately sent back.

There is right now a 400 — almost a 400,000-case backload for these unaccompanied children that are now being booked into dockets of 2017. So we need to get the law changed and have them treated the same as we do with the Mexican — illegal Mexicans coming across.

The other thing we need to do is, we need to do what law enforcement has been asking since — for two decades, secure the borders. Bring the Israelis in, talk to our people, build the sophisticated kinds of systems that they have in place. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And secure our borders, like law enforcement has been asking. We have our boots on the ground. We know what the problem is.

And, thirdly, if we’re going to deal with the administrative process, we need to make — send more administrative judges to the border. Don’t ship people who are going to have administrative hearings all over our country, at the expense of taxpayers. Keep them there. Get the judges down there and let them do these cases.

If you have to do them around the clock, like they do in Pennsylvania for regular court cases, then do them around the clock. But we need to process these people and get them right back if they’re entitled to a hearing, until such time as the law is changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have heard from other people in this series that we’re a relatively wealthy country, that this is a situation that requires our compassion. What is your response?

THOMAS HODGSON: Look, we’re about the most compassionate country in the world. And I don’t disagree that we ought to help everybody we can.

But, you know, why don’t we — why don’t we load up planes from Iraq where these people over there are being slaughtered by ISIS and put them here?  If anybody needs refuge from violence, we know what’s going on. What about our own kids in Chicago who are being killed by eight and nine a weekend?  What are we doing about that?

I mean, look, the reality is, we can’t sustain this. And if you talk to parents who have had their school programs cut because our governments can’t afford it anymore in the schools to have arts program, sports programs, kids can’t play in these activities unless their parents pay extra money, which they just don’t have, given the economy, the difficulties in our economy.

So the idea that somehow we’re able to sustain this through medical costs, costs for additional teachers who are going to speak the language, special needs costs, I mean, it’s about $9,000 per unaccompanied child in our schools. So these are the kinds of things that are going to really devastate our country, and not give us the opportunities we otherwise have to be compassionate for those we can bring in and do it the right way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, thank you so much.

THOMAS HODGSON: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all the conversations from our immigration series on our YouTube page, where we have complied them all in one playlist.

Hear more voices from the immigration debate. PBS NewsHour has invited an immigration judge, a border patrol officer, an immigration lawyer, an Arizona rancher and more to give a personal account from their front-seat view of the clash over the recent influx of migrants from Central America. Watch these conversations in the playlist below: