There is a humanitarian crisis in South and Central America. Political turmoil, ravaged economies, and social problems have led tens of thousands of children to flee Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to escape abuse, criminal gangs and violence. Others are forced leave their home countries as victims of human trafficking or abandonment.
While the U.S. is not the only country effected, thousands of victims of violence have made their way north to the Southwest border. Among the latest inflow are growing numbers of female victims and children under the age of 12. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 60,000 fleeing children will enter the U.S. by the end of this fiscal year. That’s a staggering 35,000 more than entered in 2013 and nearly 55,000 more than entered just a decade ago.
What’s being done to respond to the crisis?
Children, particularly those who have been abandoned or are victims of human trafficking or other horrible crimes, are the most defenseless immigrants. Ensuring their safety is a fundamental priority.
The Obama Administration has set in motion an interagency effort to deal with the crisis and protect the children. FEMA is leading and coordinating a government-wide effort to identify appropriate facilities to house the minors, transport them to Health and Human Services custody as required by law, and provide medical and other services to children in the overcrowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers.
But more must be done to protect them. The Administration must ensure that these children are not subject to further abuse and neglect while it the custody of the U.S. government.
Why can’t the children simply be turned around at the border and sent home?
While the immigration laws provide for the expedited removal of noncitizens seeking to enter without valid documents, there are humanitarian exceptions for children and others fleeing persecution and violence.
Children who flee to the U.S. from countries other than Canada or Mexico cannot be immediately returned across the border. Our laws further require that vulnerable youngsters who are forced to make a long, arduous and dangerous trip north from South and Central America be transferred by the Department of Homeland Security to the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
The policies behind these laws – which were enacted well before the Obama Administration – reflect Congress’ belief that children, particularly those who have been abandoned or are victims of human trafficking or other horrible crimes, are the most defenseless immigrants. Ensuring their safety is a fundamental priority. They are deserving of special protection.
Nevertheless, children fleeing danger – many of whom have suffered unspeakable violence, including sexual assault and human trafficking – are subject to deportation from the U.S. While some may be eligible for asylum, special immigrant juvenile status or visas which protect crime victims, most will eventually be ordered deported to their home countries – Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras – and back to the violence and dead ends they originally fled.
Nor does the system provide unaccompanied minors legal representation in immigration court, even though very few have the means to hire an attorney. Thankfully, the Obama Administration, in an unprecedented move, has sought to make lawyers available to the children so they do not have to face the daunting task of representing themselves in complicated legal proceedings.
It’s also important to note that the children fleeing violence and arriving at the Southwest border will not qualify for DACA, the deportation reprieve President Obama put into place for DREAMERs in 2012, or earned legalization under the various immigration reform bills passed by the Senate or pending in the House of Representatives. All reform legislation cuts off eligibility for undocumented immigrants who recently entered the U.S.
Predictably, anti-immigrant politicians and their supporters seek to capitalize on the humanitarian crisis in an effort to kill immigration reform efforts in the U.S.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) for example, whose rabid hatred of immigrants and immigration reform has made him the darling of the nativist/restrictionist movement, has been quick to falsely claim that it’s the result of the Obama Administration’s alleged failure to enforce the immigration law. Never mind that, according to the Congressional Research Service, illegal immigration has dropped nearly 75 percent since 2000, or that more than 1 million undocumented immigrants have been deported under the President’s watch. Cynical politicians bank on the fact that perception is often more valuable than reality.
In fact, the surge of children fleeing South and Central America is an international humanitarian crisis — the result of regional social, economic and political turmoil in the region. While it may be tempting for some to use the agony of victimized children to score cheap political points, responsible members of Congress ought to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan effort to ensure that vulnerable children are protected, and their lives back home are improved so they aren’t forced to make this difficult and dangerous choice.