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NYT: Beware John Cornyn’s ‘Humane’ Immigration Act

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Check out Lawrence Downes’ new post at the New York Times op-ed page, on why John Cornyn’s new (in)HUMANE bill is not a solution for children fleeing violence:

Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, has offered a bill that he says will solve the crisis of unaccompanied migrant children at the southern border.

The bill would rewrite a 2008 law to make it easier to deport these children more quickly to their home countries, mostly Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. As recent news accounts have explained, these are countries plagued by criminal gangs and war-zone murder rates. The violence is a prominent reason for the exodus of terrorized and brutalized children whom Mr. Cornyn wants to turn back.

He calls his bill the Humane Act.

Under existing law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA, unaccompanied minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico are to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which then release them to the custody of relatives or other caregivers as they wait for their cases to come up in immigration court.

The act sought to protect young victims of human trafficking. It was widely praised by lawmakers of both parties when President George W. Bush signed it into law.

Mr. Cornyn’s bill, sponsored  in the House by Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, would change the law so that Central American children are processed the same way Mexican children are – that is, with a quick screening interview by a Border Patrol agent, and, in many cases, an immediate trip back home.

There are several reasons why this is a terrible idea. It starts with handing the responsibility for humanitarian interviews to a law-enforcement agent with a badge and a gun, whose main job is to catch and deport illegal border crossers, and who may not even speak Spanish. This is not the person you want interviewing a traumatized 15-year-old Honduran girl to find out whether the abuse she endured at home or the rape she suffered en route qualifies her for protection in the United States.

It’s worth reading this article in Vox by Dara Lind, whose reporting on the border crisis has been invaluable. She cites a recent report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which examined how well Customs and Border Patrol agents were screening Mexican children to protect the victims of trafficking, as the law requires.

The short answer: badly.

“In general,” the UNHCR report says, “CBP’s style of interviewing Mexican unaccompanied alien children seemed to focus on producing quick answers rather than substantive ones.” Agents usually conducted interviews in an open room — with other interviews happening all around, and plenty of adults, children and other officers watching — even though private rooms were available. That means that trafficking victims could have been interviewed while their traffickers were just feet away.

Often, agents read questions off a form in a flat voice — not even pausing to make sure children understood. And when agents couldn’t speak Spanish well enough for the interview, some just conducted it in English with hand gestures. One agent even typed the questions from the form into Google Translate, and then read the questions off the screen, never making eye contact with the child.

“In the cases observed” by UNHCR researchers, the report says, “the entire interview” — including two separate forms — “took approximately ten minutes.”

The screening happens so quickly that most children don’t even understand what’s happening. UNHCR researchers interviewed several Mexican children from each sector of the border as they were being returned to Mexico. At the Rio Grande Valley sector — the one that Central American kids are coming into today — “only one of the five Mexican unaccompanied alien children interviewed there said he was asked if he was afraid to return.”

It would be criminal to subject Central American refugees to the same system. They need lawyers and victim advocates, clean, safe shelter and the chance to be heard in court.

Now the Obama administration is seeking to make these resources available through a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental funding request to Congress. But Republicans are balking. They think the supplemental bill should include new layers of enforcement at the border and a rewrite of the TVPRA.

The border crisis is bringing out the worst in the immigration debate. Right-wingers are lying about migrant children carrying deadly diseases.  And Republicans like Mr. Cornyn – who for nearly a decade has been one of the worst saboteurs of immigration reform in Congress – are forgetting themselves. In their eagerness to attack President Obama and score points from a humanitarian emergency, they are ignoring what even Glenn Beck understands: These are innocent children.

Time for backbone on the other side. Democrats should stand firm and block the Cornyn-Cuellar bill. Congress should approve the supplemental funding without vandalizing amendments.