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Court System Not Equipped For Deluge Of Underage Immigrants


On Thursday, members of Congress gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and convened a hearing about the unprecedented number of children crossing into the U.S. from places like Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Republicans say the influx is a result of lax immigration laws. Democrats consider it to be a humanitarian crisis. Many of these children are crossing into the U.S. and ending up in Texas, where they're taken into custody and housed in shelters until they can be sent to a parent or guardian elsewhere in the U.S. Ramon Garcia is County judge in the Rio Grande Valley where a lot of these kids are crossing. This week, he briefed members of Congress about the situation. He joins us now. Judge Garcia, welcome to the program.

JUDGE RAMON GARCIA: Thank you. Thank you, Ms. McEvers.

MCEVERS: First, can you tell us about how these crossings work? When a child from Central America arrives at the U.S. border, what happens?

GARCIA: Once they hit our soil - once they hit the middle of the Rio Grande River and cross over into the U.S. side, they come in there and claim asylum, or they come in there and claim protection. They're entitled to a hearing - a due process hearing. And what is going on is, you know, we've got these tens of thousands of people coming over, and our system is not presently set up to accommodate all of these hearings.

MCEVERS: Right. So the children come to the border. They're taken into custody, and then they're put in these shelters. And then they're supposed to be given a hearing. So in the time that they're waiting to get that hearing, they're released, right? They don't stay in Texas - is that right?

GARCIA: That's correct. They're not staying here locally. But they do need - you know, they're coming in, we're providing portable toilets, portable facilities so they can bathe, providing them some clean clothing, some basic food and helping them go on their way. And putting them on a bus and they proceed to go on to their final destination. It has cost us to date as a County about - close to 60,000. And we don't know how much longer this is going to last. So as a result, when the congressmen were here, we asked them for some reimbursement so that we don't place a burden on our local taxpayers any more than we have to.

MCEVERS: Some officials in Texas are saying we need more border agents. We need more enforcement at the border. But you say this isn't an enforcement issue. What do you...

GARCIA: That's right.

MCEVERS: What do you mean by that?

GARCIA: When these kids cross that river, nobody has to chase him. They chase the Border Patrol down. They look around - they're looking for that man in green that is going to take them to be processed and be giving a permiso - a permit, telling him that you can go on and be free - freely travel about our country until you're asked to appear. Then because of the delay, it's now taking one, two - at times two and a half years. And that's where the - that's where the problem is - lies. That's where the bottleneck is occurring.

MCEVERS: So what would be the solution to this problem?

GARCIA: The solution is - number one, work out some kind of a diplomatic agreement with Mexico to prevent them from coming into Mexico in the first place. Number two, since most of them are traveling to America on top of a train, you know, work out some kind of an agreement with the people that own that train - with the companies or the government so that people don't board that train. And number three, once they're here, we need to process them quickly. And that's going to require investing money in judges and public defenders so that we can afford them the rights that they're entitled to under our present laws. At the same time, we've got to help out in some way - improve their situation in some of these countries. Otherwise, I mean, we're not giving them much of a choice.

MCEVERS: Ramon Garcia is the Hidalgo County judge in Texas. Judge Garcia, thanks so much for joining us.

GARCIA: Thank you. Thank you, Ms. McEvers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.