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The question isn't whether children will be sent home, it's when

The press has jumped on White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's Monday comments that "most" of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who've been apprehended at the US-Mexico border will be sent home. (President Obama said the same thing last week during his Rose Garden speech on immigration.)

On its face, this seems like a strong policy position: the Obama administration is declaring its intent to make sure most of these kids get deported. But that isn't necessarily what it means. Most children will almost certainly be deported, regardless — but the relevant question is whether it will happen slowly and with due process, or hastily without due process.

Consider two scenarios:

1) No change to current law gets made at all. Kids are still put in deportation proceedings, and sent to live with family members while those cases make their way through the courts. Despite the Obama administration's effort to assign more immigration judges to hear children's cases, let's say it could take years for these cases to be resolved.

Ultimately, though, the judges find that most kids haven't been persecuted by the state — and because under current US asylum law being persecuted by a criminal gang isn't necessarily sufficient to get asylum, the judge finds most kids don't qualify. Furthermore, let's say immigration judges decide that it's not fair to give Special Immigrant Juvenile Status to a child who's here to reunite with his parents, or who was sent by his parents to the US. So most of them are found ineligible for legal status and deported. But that happens very gradually, after their court cases are resolved, and after they've lived in the US for two or three years.

2) The Obama administration and Congress make sweeping changes to the law — even broader than the ones the administration has asked for. Let's say this hypothetical new law would require immediate Border Patrol screenings of all immigrant children, and expedited deportation for those who can't pass the initial screening. Furthermore, the hypothetical new law would apply this retroactively to kids who have already arrived. Border Patrol reorganizes its staffing to interview all the children within two weeks, and the overwhelming majority have been deported by the end of those two weeks.

Both of these scenarios end with most of the children getting deported, at some point. (So would any scenario in between the two — such as the one the Administration is currently pushing for, which would just return children who didn't pass the initial screening rather than deporting them.)

So just saying that most of the children currently here will be deported leaves the question of how much current policy will change completely open. The question that's relevant to figuring out how much the US government is willing to change existing policy to crack down on child migrants in the hopes of "sending a message" to potential future migrants isn't whether kids will be deported, but when.