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Responding to the Child Refugee Crisis

Adult and child

Imagine that you are a parent living in a country ruled by lawless gangs that force children into the drug trade or prostitution with the credible threat of violence. Would you pay a few hundred dollars to a smuggler to take your child to relatives in the United States to secure their safety?

This is the choice that thousands of families in Central American countries are facing. The dominance of violent gangs in that region has spurred the unprecedented influx of youth into the U.S. over the past ten months. These gangs enslave minors into drug and human trafficking under penalty of injury and death. My colleague Justin Mixon, an attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania, put it best on a recent Facebook post: “I interview these kids and I can tell you that their parents are making a rationale choice that we would make with our own kids: the risk of kidnapping and gang violence in Central America is so extreme that it outweighs the risk of traveling with a smuggler to the U.S.”

The Obama Administration and other lawmakers want to make it easier to quickly deport youth migrating from Central America into the U.S. by amending a 2008 humanitarian law specifically enacted to protect these children from victimization. Under existing law, officials must take children to special shelters within 72 hours of their detention, and help identify adults in the U.S. who can care for them. Such youth are entitled to a hearing in front of a judge before they can be deported. Current proposals call for stripping away these protections so that officials can quickly return children to Central America without a hearing.

Such a move would endanger thousands of youth who may be eligible for legal status here under existing laws. Advocacy organizations that serve immigrants and refugees are correctly informing the public that many of these youth may qualify to remain in this country legally.   A chapter in a book I recently edited – Changing Lives: Lawyers Fighting for Children — describes the different visas that may be available to children who are fleeing their countries to find safety in the U.S. Some may be eligible because they are either victims of abuse or neglect in their home countries, or victims of political or ethnic persecution. Other visas are set aside for youth who are victims or witnesses to serious crimes of violence or trafficking.

President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in aid to pay for more immigration judges and to care for children detained in the shelters. While the aid package also includes some monies for legal assistance for the refugees, it’s not nearly enough. These children, many of whom do not speak English, cannot be expected to navigate the complex United States immigration system on their own.

The immigration chapter in Changing Lives – written by my colleague the Hon. Gail Chang Bohr – vividly demonstrates why these children need trained lawyers to protect them. Judge Bohr tells the story of Eniye (not her real name), a fourteen year-old Nigerian girl who came into the attention of authorities in Minnesota when she arrived at school one day with bruises on her face. Child welfare workers established that the uncle with whom she was living abused her, and quickly came up with a plan to send her back to Nigeria. Four days before she was to be put on a plane, an attorney with a local children’s law center came to her aid. The attorney’s investigation revealed a number of startling facts: the “uncle” was not related to Eniye; Eniye was sent to live with this man’s family when she was five years-old to be a servant girl; Eniye didn’t remember her parents and where they lived; the child welfare worker could not recall the name of the person she called in Nigeria – at a phone number supplied by the supposed “uncle” — who agreed to take Eniye; and Eniye was a member of a persecuted people in Nigeria. The attorney applied her extensive knowledge of both child welfare and immigration law to assist Eniye to remain safely, and legally, in this country. Without the attorney’s intervention, Eniye would likely have ended up in the hands of human traffickers.

Increased monies for shelters, immigration courts and lawyers will help the crisis. However, this spending will be meaningless if these children are stripped of their opportunity to demonstrate to an immigration judge, with the aid of a trained attorney, why they are at risk of grave harm if they return to their native countries. Instead, we will be quickly shipping them back to face injury and death. As author and Sonia Nazario wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, “[t]his is not how a great nation treats children.”

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