On Tuesday, President Obama sent a request to Congress for emergency supplemental appropriations to address the increased flow of families and unaccompanied children crossing our border illegally. The administration also indicated that it will separately work with Congress to relax the legal protections for unaccompanied children in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and it previously announced plans to hold families with children in immigration detention.
Many of these children and families are fleeing horrific conditions in Central America’s Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In these countries, violence, persecution and human trafficking are pervasive. Honduras actually has the world’s highest murder rate. Not surprisingly, the U.N. Refugee Agency found that 58 percent of the unaccompanied children are asylum seekers.
How we treat those who request the protection of the United States should be consistent with our country’s ideals and laws. Unfortunately, the administration’s response is falling short.
There has long been a bipartisan commitment to refugees that should inspire the president and Congress. The Refugee Act of 1980 passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force on Immigration Policy — co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty — emphasized that the U.S. commitment to refugees is “enshrined in international treaties and domestic U.S. laws that set the standard for the rest of the world; when American standards erode, refugees face greater risks everywhere.”
The world is watching. The United States encourages other nations to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution. While the number of people apprehended at our border has risen significantly, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared with the several million who have fled Syria and sought refuge in countries far less able than the United States to handle such flows.
Effective safeguards are crucial to identify those at risk of persecution, trafficking or torture. These risks are especially great for children, who may not know why their families sent them on the perilous journey to the United States and who are most vulnerable to trafficking. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has repeatedly raised concerns about the process for identifying asylum seekers in expedited removal proceedings. In many cases observed by USCIRF experts, border officers didn’t follow established procedures to identify asylum seekers. The government would only exacerbate the situation if it jettisons key safeguards for at-risk refugees and children.
Holding children, families and asylum-seeking adults in immigration detention facilities, particularly for extended periods of time beyond initial processing, is also inconsistent with this country’s ideals. Last year, USCIRF issued a report detailing its concerns about U.S. detention of asylum seekers. In many cases, the use of detention is not necessary to meet the government’s important objective of assuring appearance for court hearings and possible deportation.
Alternatives to detention have proven effective. Criminal justice systems across the country are increasingly relying on them, prompted by groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Recent statistics from an alternatives-to-detention program used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reveal that immigrants appeared for their final hearings 97.4 percent of the time and complied with final orders 85 percent of the time. There also are strong community-based models run by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Many of the children crossing the border alone have parents or other relatives already in the country. About 85 percent of the unaccompanied children are reunified with family, often their parents. That is real “family reunification,” a central tenet of U.S. immigration policy.
The U.S. government should adequately staff border enforcement and U.S. protection and adjudication systems so that they can conduct timely — but not rushed — hearings that reflect America’s commitment to fairness. Additional resources are urgently needed to improve the conditions in Central America prompting so many to flee. This problem is in our backyard and we ignore it at our peril. The United States also should intensify its targeting of smugglers and human traffickers who prey on children and families.
What the U.S. government should not do is turn a blind eye to the conditions that these people are fleeing and force them to return to danger. Would we counsel the Jordanians to deport the Syrians who are refugees in their country? I doubt it. America should stand firm as a beacon of hope for those fleeing violence and persecution.
James W. Ziglar was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under former President George W. Bush. He is a member of Human Rights First’s board of directors and is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.