Fingers are being pointed and blame is being cast in Washington regarding the more than 50,000 undocumented Central American children who have crossed the U.S. border in the previous nine months. The legislative branch is at a standstill as Democrats blame the former Bush administration’s policies and Republicans blame President Obama’s “lax immigration policies.”
So what’s really going on?
More than 52,000 minors – mostly unaccompanied – have been taken into custody in the U.S. since October. That’s the largest influx of asylum seekers to the U.S. in more than three decades. It’s double the total from the previous year and ten times the number from 2009.
A study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58 percent of these children were motivated by safety concerns, fearing conditions at home. Many of the children – who are primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have suffered actual harm or threats of harm. Their home countries are wrought with gang violence, often fueled by the drug trade. These minors perceived the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home and risking becoming yet another victim of drug or gang violence. Some of these children were hoping to be reunited with family members in the U.S., many misled to believe so by profit-seeking smugglers or traffickers.
Why is the U.S. at a standstill?
Under the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to combat human trafficking, Mexican child migrants can be sent back across the border quickly. However, the TVPRA stipulates that children from any other Central American country must be given a court hearing before a decision is made regarding deportation. The 2008 law provides important legal protections that prevent immigration officials from sending children back to situations of violence.
There are proposals to amend the 2008 law to make repatriation of Central American children quicker and easier in order to ease the current influx. President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion – money that would be spent on additional Border Patrol manpower, more detention facilities and immigration judges, as well as improved care for children during the deportation process.
What’s the best course of action?
From an anti-trafficking standpoint, the intent of the 2008 law is not flawed and it shouldn’t be changed. The 2008 TVPRA provides vital protection for children who would otherwise risk being returned to situations of danger and potential trafficking. Furthermore, an analysis by the Center for American Violence points out that violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is more to blame for the influx of migrants than the TVPRA. If the 2008 law was at fault, then why did the number of child migrants entering the U.S. hold steady from 2009 to 2012 and only begin increasing exponentially in 2013? Furthermore, there has been a 712 percent increase in refugees from these three nations to the neighboring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize – an increase that can’t be explained by the U.S. law.
The TVPRA should be followed, not changed, as it safeguards the secure return of children to their home countries and when a safe return is not possible, it allows the child to apply for asylum. Rather than change the law, the U.S. should turn its attention to addressing the root causes of the immigration crisis – the violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which has been compared to that of a war zone. Currently, Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and Guatemala and El Salvador are in the top five.
The most pressing concern is the pressure the influx has created on social, child protection and judicial services. But as Free the Slaves aptly notes, the answer is not for children to “be thrown over the fence without regard to their welfare and left to the mercies of traffickers and vicious criminal cartels.”
Rather, asylum officers, law enforcement and immigration judges should be trained to quickly interview children sensitively and in a victim-centered manner. These children – even as undocumented migrants – deserve due process and protection under domestic and international law, lest they be too quickly sent back to circumstances that could cost them their lives. To send children back to life-threatening situations undermines both U.S. responsibilities under international law and its credibility as a humane country. The U.S. need not open all its doors for any and every migrant, but it does have responsibilities to those migrants fleeing violence and danger.
Partisan debates about immigration policies aside, Congress can’t remain static on the fate of the growing number of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. The U.S. should direct its efforts toward assisting in the alleviation of security concerns in Central America. Children facing risks of violence or threats of persecution should be granted refugee status and offered special protections. Rapid, mass repatriation of these children should be avoided – it would only lead to increased vulnerability for violence, abuse and human trafficking.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC