In mid-July, I walked into a building in Chicago to visit 70 children who were being sheltered and cared for, most of them after making the treacherous journey from Central America to the United States. Many of the children were very young, and some were even infants being held by their teenaged mothers. This was an experience I won’t soon forget. It’s nothing short of a miracle that they made it here alive, and many still bear the scars of that dangerous journey.
Many of these child refugees are escaping violence in their countries, having been physically abused, or victimized by gangs or human traffickers. Simply put, most are fleeing for their lives. Eighty percent of these children are from just three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – where, in the last few years, violence from gangs and drug cartels has spiked dramatically.
Unfortunately, some see a political opportunity in this humanitarian crisis. The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has proposed eliminating the protections in our laws afforded to unaccompanied children from Central America. These protections were created in a law passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in 2008.
The House Republicans want these unaccompanied children to be quickly deported without legal counsel. Refugee advocates have pointed out that children, especially those who were traumatized in their home countries or on their journey here, may not be able to even understand our laws.
Some have claimed our border needs to be secured by sending in the National Guard. But deploying the National Guard wouldn’t help to solve the border crisis. There are more Border Patrol agents at the border than any time in our history. In fact, because the border is so secure these children are simply presenting themselves to the first Border Patrol agent they see.
We don’t need to flood the border with more agents or gut the 2008 trafficking law to address this refugee crisis. At a recent Appropriations Committee hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified that the Administration can address this crisis without changing the law.
So what should we do? First, we need to work with the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to make sure they stop sending unaccompanied minors on this dangerous journey. Second, we need to pursue and prosecute the smugglers and “coyotes” who are transporting these children at great expense to their families. Third, the Senate should pass the emergency supplemental appropriations bill of $2.7 billion to give the Administration additional resources to address this humanitarian crisis. The bulk of the money in the supplemental would pay for the apprehension, detention, and deportation of recent border crossers, as well as the custody and care of unaccompanied children. The supplemental would also fund a surge of immigration judges to the border to expedite the processing of these recent arrivals.
The United States has a legal and moral obligation to not deport helpless children and return them to the same life-threatening situations they were trying to escape. We are about to be tested on how we respond to this as a nation. The first part of that test is coming this week in the Senate, where we’ll vote on the President’s supplemental budget request. I hope we pass that test by approving this bill to stem the flow of refugees in an effective, humane way.
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Sent from the office of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin