April 29, 2020
In the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is turning away unaccompanied children and asylum seekers at its borders, without first conducting trafficking and other humanitarian screenings required under U.S. law. Although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has provided very little information about these practices, as of April 7, 2020, at least 350 unaccompanied children—and thousands more asylum seekers—have been summarily returned to Mexico or to their home country to face threats of violence, sexual assault, murder, persecution, and trafficking.
KIND learned of 12-year-old and 15-year-old Central American minors who presented themselves alone as unaccompanied children at the United States-Mexico border. They provided their biographic information to CBP; instead of being transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) as required by U.S. law, they were expelled back into a dangerous environment in Ciudad Juarez, homeless and on their own until they were connected with child welfare in Juarez.
These actions, which violate laws designed to protect asylum seekers and prevent trafficking—especially of children—are being justified as needed to protect Americans from the spread of COVID-19. But at the border, as everywhere else in the United States, it is the government’s responsibility to both protect people from the spread of disease while continuing to uphold and maintain existing laws and responsibilities. Rather than summarily expelling children from the United States, DHS should be following the best practices identified by public health experts to screen, test, treat, and responsibly quarantine unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, attending to their health and humanitarian needs and legal rights.