Congress returns today, September 8 to unfinished business: trying to pass a budget and respond to the President’s request for supplemental funding to address the increase of women and children coming to the U.S. seeking protection. When Congress left for its five week recess they had not reached a consensus on emergency funding for the crisis. Without approved funding, the Obama Administration was forced to divert funds from other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operations to meet the immediate costs. This means that Congress needs to approve a spending bill as soon as possible upon return. However there is a major concern that lawmakers will use such a spending bill to change current legislation designed to protect victims of human trafficking. Prior to the recess there was a lot of discussion about amending the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). The change, which was first proposed by the Obama administration, entails changing the way children from non-contiguous countries (mainly, countries other than Mexico or Canada) are treated at the border.
Currently, unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico or Canada who are apprehended at the border are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Children’s Services to be either reunited with family members in the United States or placed in foster care while waiting to appear at an immigration hearing and consult with an advocate. These protections increase the likelihood that authorities would discover any child’s viable claim to asylum, as a trafficking victim, or other form of immigration relief.
The proposed change, however, would remove these protections and make it so all children receive the minimal protections currently afforded to children from Mexico and Canada. Immediately after being apprehended, a child from Mexico or Canada is given a simple screening by a Border Patrol agent to determine whether the child has any viable claim to justify immigration proceedings and long-term care. The child may be sent back on the same day he or she was apprehended. However, this short and immediate screening is not enough.
Very rarely would a child, or even an adult, tell his or her full story of abuse or trafficking to an agent who just apprehended the child and who is wearing a badge and a gun. This is evident in stories of children from Mexico who were turned around at the border when they in fact had viable claims to stay in the United States. For example, in 2009 a 16 year old boy was told by a gang to be a “drug mule” and carry a backpack of marijuana across the border from Mexico. He was then apprehended by border patrol who, rather than investigate his trafficking claim, told him to go back to Mexico to get more information, including the names of the smugglers, and then to seek refuge.
In another case, a group of girls from Mexico were caught and repatriated by U.S. immigration forces multiple times before they were later discovered by U.S. police as victims of a sex trafficking ring. Some of them had previously been caught at the border, but Border Patrol agents had repeatedly failed to identify them as victims being transported by their traffickers.
The United States must retain its commitment to abolishing human trafficking by maintaining a law designed to protect the most vulnerable. It is important that all children are appropriately screened and cared for so that they feel safe to tell their stories. We cannot let efficiency come at the expense of children being sent directly into the hands of their traffickers.
Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer for the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission, is an attorney advocating for the protection of women, children and families seeking protection in the United States. Prior to joining the Women’s Refugee Commission, Jennifer worked as an immigration attorney representing both detained and nondetained immigrants before the U.S. government and created and managed the first project in the D.C. area designed to provide legal representation to trafficked children. She has published articles and handbooks on issues related to immigration policies in the United States, and engaged international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States on human rights standards for vulnerable migrants. Jennifer was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. She holds a B.A. in American Studies and Spanish from Franklin and Marshall College and a J.D. with honors from the Washington College of Law, American University, where she was a Public Interest/Public Service Scholar.
Image Credit Eric Gay/AP