Washington D.C. - The humanitarian challenge posed by the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children and young families at our southern border has once again ignited passions over the role immigration plays in our country. Rather than respond to the arrival of children and young families as refugees fleeing violence and crime, and appropriately fund our ability to prioritize the health and well-being of these individuals, Washington has yet again become mired in anti-immigration rhetoric. As the Senate and House take up supplemental funding bills, this debate is likely to involve numerous attacks on existing protections for children, including rolling back the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), accelerating court proceedings to limit the due process available to children, and other measures that will in essence blame the children for needing protection.
During the course of this debate, it bears constant repeating that neither the TVPRA nor providing access to immigration court proceedings is the problem. Some have argued that existing measures designed to screen Central American children to determine whether they might be eligible for asylum, protection as trafficking victims, or some other form of relief is hindering the rapid removal of children, and without speedy removal there is no deterrent effect. Others have argued that the court process itself is too slow or that providing counsel to children is too burdensome. All of these arguments ignore the fundamental fact that the TVPRA is not a barrier to efficiently and effectively deciding the cases of unaccompanied children.
Responsibility for the delays under the current system lies squarely at the feet of those who have consistently refused to provide resources to the adjudicators and judges that are a critical part of our immigration system in general, and this process in particular. Abandoning the protections of the TVPRA would not only be a travesty of justice, but would be a victory for those anti-immigrant members of Congress who have consistently expanded immigration enforcement without addressing the equally important issue of providing fair and timely hearings for all. This is particularly important in situations where the life of a child is endangered, and where an accelerated process reduces the chances that those in need of protection will be identified. In fact, the current screening process for identifying Mexican children who are victims of trafficking (which is far more limited than the process for Central American children) has been found by the UNHCR to utterly fail as a vehicle for identifying children at risk.
Success is achievable without undermining legal protections. Providing additional resources to the immigration courts is a first step, but far more can and should be done. Improving access to counsel, including making counsel available to all children, ensures protections and actually leads to a more efficient adjudication process. In those cases where children choose to return to their countries or are ordered removed, the U.S. must comply with its international obligations and follow its moral compass to ensure that returns are conducted with appropriate attention to the best interests and needs of the child. We can make use of international monitoring and protection standards for ensuring safe repatriation of children and support programs that help the countries of origin reduce the violence, crime, and poverty that is driving children from their homes. In other words, thoughtful, holistic approaches will, in the long run, produce better results for all. Simply pouring more money into border protection or downgrading “inconvenient” laws sounds tough, but is ultimately the weakest response of all.
The United States Congress must ensure that its legacy is the improvement of our immigration court and adjudication processes and not the demise of humanitarian protections put in place to protect children fleeing violence.