The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 provides critical protection for children from Central America fleeing brutal violence by gangs and narco traffickers, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking and devastating abuse from which their governments cannot protect them.
Most of these children — toddlers to teenagers — are deeply affected by the experiences that drove them to take the life-threatening journey thousands of miles to the United States, the journey itself and detention by Customs and Border Protection. Held in large, cold, windowless rooms without beds, these children are terrified of the CBP officials holding them and of what will happen to them.
The 2008 law says unaccompanied children except those from Mexico must be transferred within three days to the Department of Health and Human Services because of the agency’s expertise in child welfare.
This process is vital because it allows the children — and remember these are children — time to recover from their scary journey, be removed from jail-like settings, be screened and cared for by a child protection expert, and find a lawyer to help them seek safety in the United States.
In contrast, CBP officials determine within a few days whether Mexican children can be deported unless the child expresses fear of returning or if trafficking is suspected. A child alone is unlikely to share traumatic experiences with an adult stranger he fears and so soon after this journey. And CBP was found to have failed to screen Mexican children adequately in studies by the Government Accountability Office and the United Nations Refugee Agency, quickly returning most.
Changing the 2008 law to allow unaccompanied children from Central America to be deported hastily would undoubtedly mean returning thousands to grave danger, even death.
Every child will not be found eligible for protection, but every child should have a full and fair chance to make his case. We would want nothing less for the children in our lives.
Wendy Young is president of KIND, Kids in Need of Defense.