By Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to give priority to child migrants over adults in deportation hearings as part of a broader initiative to deal with a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, a Justice Department official told Reuters.
The new policy, to be announced by the Justice Department on Wednesday, is one of several steps the administration is taking to accelerate the removal of tens of thousands of child migrants entering the United States, many from Central America.
The official gave few details of how quickly the "removal" hearings would proceed, but the White House asked Congress on Tuesday for $45 million to hire 40 judges to address backlogs in courts that mean deportation hearings often take more than 18 months.
Immigration courts typically prioritize immigrants held in detention for hearings, but under U.S. law, children are not detained. The policy change means the courts will now hear first from newly arrived children, while adult immigrants not in detention, including those who are seeking asylum, will have to wait longer, the official said.
Adults who recently crossed the border carrying dependent children will also be prioritized in immigration courts.
As many as 90,000 children may cross into the United States this year, according to U.S. government estimates. They are mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where gang violence has led them to make dangerous journeys to escape.
The United States is facing budget strains over the cost of providing food, shelter and medical care for the children, and President Barack Obama has said most of the children will be sent home.
But the influx of children has created the largest ever backlog in immigration courts. In the first half of the year, there were 366,724 pending cases, the highest on record, according to Justice Department data.
As of March, the average wait time for a case was 578 days, according to Justice Department records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-gathering organization.
The Justice Department declined to give an estimate for the expected wait times under the new policy to be announced on Wednesday.
GANG VIOLENCE NO EXCUSE
Total processing times will vary based on the complexity of the case, said Lauren Alder Reid, a lawyer who handles immigration at the Justice Department.
Reid said there are many forms of protection to which the children are entitled to apply and judges will determine whether their circumstances merit relief from deportation.
Evaluating each case can be a lengthy process. Domestic abuse, for example, is grounds for relief and requires U.S. officials to interview relatives and neighbors of children.
But the law does not grant relief based on gang violence, which human rights advocates blame most for driving the children out of their home countries.
Republicans have blamed the crisis on Obama's 2012 policy that delayed deportations for children brought into the United States illegally by their parents.
The White House has acknowledged that there has been misinformation about U.S. policy. Obama has sought to spread the message that if children come to the United States illegally they will be sent back. But that message has been complicated by the fact that it can take a year or more to deport children.
The White House wants Congress to change an anti-trafficking law that requires lengthy deportation proceedings for most children.
Under the 2008 law, children entering the United States illegally from countries outside of Mexico and Canada must go through immigration courts before they can be deported. Obama is seeking greater flexibility in the law to allow faster deportation of children from countries that do not border the United States.
The immigrants could then be repatriated based on a border agent's evaluation within 48 hours of being caught.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Ross Colvin)