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What’s Needed: a Clean Supplemental, Not Cursory Interviews that Could Result in Child Refugees Being Sent Back to Their Death

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The following is a statement by Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, with respect to the current Congressional debate regarding Central American children who are seeking safety at our border.

As the House Working Group’s recommendations released today make clear, Republicans are hell bent on tying any supplemental appropriations to changes in the 2008 TVPRA.  This is exactly the wrong way to address this emergency unfolding in the region.  It will result in children who are eligible for protection in the United States being sent back to the violence they escaped.

We strongly believe that Central American children who are fleeing murder, rape, extortion and forced recruitment into gangs should be treated as refugees.  When the house next door is on fire, you take in your neighbors so they can be safe.  Well, these are our neighbors.  They are young boys and girls.  Some are as young as 7 and 8 years old.  They have fled Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.  Guatemala and El Salvador are in the top five.  These countries are as violent today as Iraq was during the surge.  Their parents face an awful choice: keep them at home and face gang recruitment, rape and murder, or risk a harrowing journey in hopes of finding safety elsewhere.  Many come to the United States but many also seek refuge in other countries in the region (Nicaragua, Belize, Mexico).  UNHCR says that since 2008, protection requests from individuals fleeing these three countries have increased 712%.  This is compelling evidence that this is more a refugee emergency than a migrant flow.

According to experts and studies, it is estimated that half or more of the children will qualify for protection in the United States.  But we’ll never know if we don’t provide them with a full, fair and independent proceeding.  This is what is required under current law, and it is the best way to avoid sending kids back to their death.

Under proposals to “treat Central Americans the same as Mexicans,” let’s be clear what is likely to happen.  Upon arrival, and without access to any sort of advocate, children will be given a cursory interview by border patrol officers – uniformed and armed law enforcement agents – to determine whether a child is eligible for protection.  Border Patrol officers are trained to secure our borders, not engage in sensitive interviews with young children.  As detailed in a UNHCR review that was obtained by Vox, the way Border Patrol deals with Mexican children is a disaster.  This from Vox:

In June 2014, the government allowed the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees to review Border Patrol’s screening of Mexican kids.  The review was confidential, and UNHCR refuses to comment on it publicly or privately.  But Vox obtained a copy of the final report that UNHCR submitted to the Department of Homeland Security.  The secret report concludes that the system is biased against Mexican children — and that Border Patrol shouldn’t be in the business of figuring out whether or not children should be sent home at all.  The way the law is written, any Mexican child should be presumed to be in danger until proven to be safe by the screening process.  But UNHCR found that in practice, Border Patrol agents are assuming that children are not in danger until proven otherwise.  The way agents are actually implementing the screenings puts the burden on the children to prove they are being persecuted or trafficked.  According to the report, ‘in all sectors (of the border) visited, CBP communicated to UNHCR that Mexican unaccompanied alien children are always returned to Mexico.’

Let’s put it bluntly: when policy makers advocate for ‘treating Central Americans the same as Mexicans’ they are advocating for Central American children to be summarily returned to the countries they fled.  In no civilized country in the world would we tolerate having such decisions of consequence made by front line law enforcement officers.

We stand for the following: kids should have a legal advocate, time to prepare their case and the chance for the case to be heard by an independent adjudicator familiar with and sensitive issues related to unaccompanied minors.  We need resources to speed up the process.  That’s what a clean supplemental will provide.  We can be fast and fair.  But that is a far cry from being super-fast and super-unfair.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans are preparing to take a number of votes on changes to our laws governing this situation.  It is indeed ironic, and sad, that two years after Speaker Boehner pledged rapid progress on immigration reform, not once has he allowed a vote on it.  He has found time to allow the House to vote to defund DACA and subject Dreamers to deportation.  He will find time to make it easier to deport child refugees.  But no time to modernize our dysfunctional immigration system.

At the end of the day, the emergency unfolding today poses a challenge to who we are as a nation.  We are justifiably proud of our tradition as a nation that welcomes refugees from violence and persecution, and in turn, doing so helps our society be more diverse and dynamic.  That is the message President Obama should be sending to Congress and the American people.