Calling on President Obama to Protect Child Migrants

June 30, 2014

President Obama sent a letter today asking Congress for authority to expedite the return of Central American children. This misguided response ignores the life-threatening circumstances these children are fleeing. It is no coincidence that the greatest numbers of children arriving come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries with among the highest murder rates in the world. Addressing the influx by stripping children of existing protections is disgraceful and tarnishes President Obama’s Administration.

As long as Central American children remain in dangerous circumstances and lack in-country safety nets, they will continue to seek our help. We must not abandon them. The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) calls on President Obama to:

1. Replace Border Patrol officials with child welfare experts to screen unaccompanied children at the borders and ports of entry, and leave intact the provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act relating to unaccompanied children.

2. Guarantee unaccompanied children full due process protections, including sufficient time to pursue immigration relief for which they may be eligible.

3. Provide legal counsel to each unaccompanied child in removal proceedings.

4. Appoint a child advocate to unaccompanied children facing removal or requesting voluntary departure, and to particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children.

5. Repatriate an unaccompanied child who is ineligible for immigration relief only after a child welfare expert, such as a child advocate, has determined it safe to do so.

6. Support both in-country (sending countries) and in-transit (Mexico) refugee processing.

7. Address the root causes – primarily violence, lack of citizen security, and failure of state protection – that force children to leave their homes.

The Administration’s mistaken response harms children like “Yesenia.” At 15, Yesenia fled El Salvador after suffering her stepfather’s sexual abuse from the time she was 10 years old. The first time she found him in her bed, he covered her mouth and threatened to kill her mother if she told anyone. Terrified, Yesenia silently endured regular rapes. Desperate, she fled to the U.S. Yesenia had told no one of her torture, and she certainly didn’t reveal it to Border Patrol officials, rather claiming to have come to the U.S. to go to school. Reunified with an aunt, she continued her silence. When her aunt noticed that she had trouble sleeping and struggled in school, Yesenia started therapy, eventually revealing her history to her therapist. Finally, Yesenia also disclosed the horrendous abuse to her attorney and was ultimately granted immigration relief. She is now a lawful permanent resident.

Children like Yesenia do not divulge their complex histories of abuse and neglect during a first meeting with strangers. They are even less likely to do so with armed strangers in uniform.

Determining whether a child gains access to the U.S. based on what she immediately reveals at the border is a deeply flawed policy and deprives children of meaningful access to protection. Expediting immigration court hearings for unaccompanied children is equally flawed, robbing children of due process and access to potential remedies. As a consequence, children like Yesenia are threatened with return to the hands of the very persecutors they may have fled. In addition to running afoul of domestic law and international obligations, expedited processing and hearings erode our ideals as a nation.  

The U.S. should focus on tackling the root causes that drive desperate children here rather than stopping them from coming. In the meantime, we must vigorously protect children’s safety and due process rights. Anything less is unconscionable.