October 21, 2015 STATEMENT — LIRS Statement for the Record on “Ongoing Migration from Central America: An Examination of FY2015 Apprehensions”

Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs

By the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)

October 21, 2015

The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC)[1], Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)[2] and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)[3] appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement for the hearing record. Our organizations have long advocated for the protection of unaccompanied children, refugees, asylum-seekers and trafficking victims. We urge Congress to uphold our country’s proud history as a nation that welcomes vulnerable newcomers fleeing violence and oppression. These children often have families here in the U.S. who can help them, and with adequate protection from the U.S. government, these children can thrive in their new communities.

For example, 14-year-old Fernando is one such courageous child. Fernando grew up in Honduras, in a city saturated with gang violence. His family received regular threats and extortion by gang members, with Fernando frequently being witness to gang members threatening his father with a gun. One time, Fernando decided to stand up to the gang members and one of them shot his brother in the shoulder as a consequence. When he reached 14, Fernando was in a car with friends when they were shot at numerous times by gang members. Fernando was unhurt, and had to lay in the blood of his friends, pretending to be dead, in order to escape. After this incident, his family helped make plans for Fernando to come to the U.S. where he was encountered by U.S. Border Patrol and transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. Fernando ultimately received Special Immigrant Juvenile Status due the trauma and violence he experienced in Honduras. He eventually went into the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program where he is living with a foster family, attending school, and has received his green card to live permanently in the U.S.

It is stories like Fernando’s that demonstrate we can protect our borders and national security while upholding our longstanding traditions and leadership as a nation that protects human rights and respects the dignity of all. We must improve our treatment of unaccompanied children by expanding child protection services and recommitting ourselves to due process in ways that increase efficiency and reduce cost. By retaining the important protections of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) and including child welfare professionals at initial screenings, we can renew our commitment to border security without sacrificing the well-being of refugee children who so desperately seek humanitarian relief. Respect for the rule of law and humane protection of the vulnerable are not mutually exclusive.

The number of Central American children and families seeking refuge in the United States and elsewhere in the region climbed sharply in 2014. From Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 to FY 2014, the number of unaccompanied children who arrived at the United States southwest border rose from 38,759 to 68,541. Of those apprehended in FY 2014, 51,705 were from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.[4] The number of individuals in family units also rose across the board, from 14,855 to 68,455, with a large increase in Central Americans.[5] Nevertheless, children and families still only represented 28% of all apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol in FY 2014. Although the number of unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the U.S. dropped in FY 2015, it remains at historically high levels. Arrivals rose again in July and August of this year.[6]

In addition, this past fiscal year’s decline in apprehensions at the U.S. border does not necessarily indicate that fewer Central Americans seek refuge in the U.S. Rather, efforts to intercept refugees in Mexico have become increasingly successful.[7] The root causes displacing Central Americans remain—the horrific violence continues and in the case of El Salvador has actually worsened.[8] We must uphold our commitment to the principles under the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 and Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). These laws provide critical protections to refugees and trafficking victims. We must not as nation be complicit in denying protection to refugees and we cannot turn our backs on refugees who come knocking at our doors fleeing harm.

Children and families seeking protection

Brutal violence and political turmoil in Central America continue to push migrants to seek refuge elsewhere. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently reported that 4,632 children were apprehended in August of this year, the largest monthly total since last year’s refugee flows from Northern Triangle countries. CBP reported that it apprehended 5,158 families in August 2015, an increase of 14% from the 4,506 families apprehended in July 2015.

Other countries bordering the Northern Triangle countries also receive refugees displaced by the violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documented a 1,185% increase in asylum applications in the Central American and Mexican region from 2008 to 2014, though the vast majority fleeing their home countries still head for the United States.[9] At the end of 2014, UNHCR documented the refugee populations in southern Central American countries: 20,744 refugees resided in Costa Rica, and even more are waiting for a determination of their refugee status;[10] 208 refugees resided in Nicaragua;[11] and 26 refugees resided in Honduras.[12] Recognizing that the U.S. has presented an inhospitable face in the past year, refugees are increasingly likely to escape the dangers of their home countries by venturing south, to Costa Rica, Panama, and even other more economically depressed countries such as Nicaragua. Panama, which received 1,800 asylum claims in all of 2014, received almost that many by July of this year [13]

Many of these children and families have legitimate claims for asylum. They have well-founded fears of persecution and the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 requires the U.S. government to protect them.[14] According to DHS U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, 88% of families in U.S. detention centers during the second quarter of FY 2015 are bona fide asylum seekers.[15] The United States violates its own laws when it treats these children and families as if they violated the law by seeking protection and accelerates their deportation proceedings.[16]

Refugees fleeing Central America are forced from their home countries to escape violence by armed criminals, gender-based violence, forced gang recruitment, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and poverty. The situations in these countries have not improved over the past calendar year. Violence and turmoil have only increased; local governments are powerless to protect their citizens, especially families and children. The factors emphasize the need for humane protection of migrants:  as refugees, these migrants are fleeing their home countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution. The strife in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has not lessened in the past year. El Salvador continues to struggle with gang violence. In August, 911 homicides were reported.[17] Guatemala is the site of enormous political upheaval. Its resident, Otto Pérez Molina, and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti were both arrested on corruption charges in August.[18]

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) provides critical protection for children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Without the protection of the TVPRA, vulnerable children from these and other non-contiguous countries would be forced back to the same dangerous conditions from which they just fled without proper screening for asylum or trafficking. Many would end up in the hands of traffickers or the gangs from which they fled. The TVPRA ensures children from non-contiguous countries receive adequate care and protection by requiring that they be transferred from CBP to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR, a child welfare and refugee agency, is better equipped to handle the specific needs of children.

The TVPRA protects children like Marta. Marta was a 4-year-old girl from Guatemala who suffered extensive sexual and physical abuse by her father. Marta’s mother was living in the U.S. as a legal resident when she heard about the abuse. She flew to Guatemala and contacted authorities to help her remove Marta from her father’s home. Although she was successful in removing her daughter from this situation, the father was not incarcerated for his actions. He began threatening to kill Marta, as well as intimidating and threatening family members to learn Marta’s location. Marta’s mother had to return to the U.S., but had no known legal recourse in which to bring Marta with her. Marta’s mother made the difficult decision to send her daughter on the frightening journey to the U.S. with a guide in order for them to live safely together. It is children who have had traumatic experiences like Marta who would be unlikely to reveal the experience of their abuse to CBP agent upon apprehension. It’s only first by addressing her protection needs, obtaining screening by a licensed clinician, and locating her family is Marta able to bring forward a claim for legal relief with the help of a lawyer.

Conversely, Mexican unaccompanied children receive no protection. The recent GAO report, Unaccompanied Alien Children: Actions Needed to Ensure Children Receive Required Care in DHS Custody revealed that 98% of Mexican, unaccompanied children are automatically sent back—even when trafficking indicators are present and a child expresses fear. This report reveals how the so-called expedited processing at the border is a failed concept. Instead, we must and should do more to protect child asylum-seekers and trafficking victims from Mexico. Take for instance the story of Marta and imagine if she were a Mexican child. The GAO report indicates that more likely than not Marta would be sent back to Mexico because CBP possesses neither the child forensic screening professionals nor the time to conduct an adequate screening.

The children and families arriving at the southern border are not a security threat; they are fleeing violence and they deserve our protection. We cannot trade the safety of these children for expediency. We must maintain the integrity of the protections provided for Central American children in the TVPRA.

 The United States’ role in the refugee crisis

The Central American refugee crisis is not a border security issue. It is a humanitarian issue. These families (young mothers and children) and unaccompanied minors are very vulnerable populations seeking protection in our country.  By treating children humanely at the border and providing due process while determining their status, the U.S. can continue its role as humanitarian leader and champion for refugees without sacrificing border security.

The Women’s Refugee Commission, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) urge Members of Congress to ensure the Obama Administration fulfills its obligation to protect, not punish, individuals who are fleeing persecution in their homelands or who are often victims of trafficking. The United States has a duty to provide refuge to families and children who have endured unimaginable persecution in their countries of origin on account of their race, religion, political opinion, membership in a particular social group, or nationality.[19] The United States should welcome these children and families as refugees. Many of them have members of their families already in the country who can help them get settled.

The U.S. Congress has a unique and important role in the United States response to the children seeking protection here. Congress should provide robust oversight of the agencies charged with the care and custody of unaccompanied children to make sure these children are handled with sensitivity to their particular vulnerabilities. Child welfare professionals must be present for the apprehension and referral to ORR for all unaccompanied children. A Border Patrol officer, in uniform, carrying a gun, who has just taken a child into custody, is not the appropriate person for interviewing a child to determine whether the child has a legitimate claim for asylum.

The TVPRA is crucial to safeguarding children’s well-being. Legislation to undermine these critical protections would put these vulnerable children even more at risk. Stripping away TVPRA protections would be a terrible mistake. Instead, we should work to improve our screening mechanisms to ensure all children are protected for the duration of their legal proceedings.

Additionally, the WRC specifically recommends continued efforts in the Northern Triangle to support the development of effective institutions there, especially child welfare organizations and a functioning judicial system. Only when there is due process within these countries will people stop fleeing for their lives in the wake of violence.

 

For more information:
Jennifer Podkul, Senior Program Officer, Migrant Rights and Justice Women’s Refugee Commission. More information can be found at: http://womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/migrant-right

 

Jessica Jones, Policy Counsel, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. More information can be found at: http://lirs.org/our-work/people-we-serve/children/advocating-for-children/

 

Cory Smith, Director of Policy, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). More information can be found at:  www.supportkind.org

[1] The Women’s Refugee Commission’s mission is to improve the lives and protect the rights of women, children and youth displaced by conflict and crisis. We research their needs, identify solutions and advocate for programs and policies to strengthen their resilience and drive change in humanitarian practice.

[2] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is the national organization established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people. LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.

[3] Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) ensures that no child stands alone in immigration by matching unaccompanied children with pro bono attorneys among our 290 law firm, corporate, law school, and bar association partners, who help these children gain the protection for which many are eligible. KIND has been referred more than 8,000 children since we opened in 2009 and trained over 10,000 attorneys. KIND also helps ensure children who are being returned to Guatemala from the U.S. and Mexico do so safely and with access to support services to help them reintegrate into their communities.

[4] Customs and Border Patrol, Southwest Border Unaccompanied Children. (2015), http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children

[5] United States Border Patrol, Southwest Border Apprehensions. (2015) https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Family%20Units%20and%20UAC%20Apps%20FY13%20-%20FY14_0.pdf

[6] U.S. Border Arrests of Children, Families surge 52% in August, (September 21, 2015) http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-border-arrests-of-children-families-surge-52-in-august-1442884799

[7]Clay Boggs, Mexico’s Southern Border Plan: More deportations and widespread human rights violations. (2015), http://www.wola.org/commentary/update_on_mexico_s_southern_border_plan_new_routes_more_deportations_and_widespread_human. See also, Jo Tuckman, Mexico’s Migration Crackdown Escalates Dangers for Central Americans (October 13, 2015), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/13/mexico-central-american-migrants-journey-crackdown; Cindy Carcamo, Elite Honduran Unit Works to Stop flow of Children to the U.S.”; US Funded Unit in Honduras Stops “drop in a bucket” Child Exodus, Pan-American Post, 9 Jul. 2014, http://panampost.com/panam-staff/2014/07/09/us-funded-unit-in-honduras-stops-drop-in-a-bucket-ofchild-exodus/

[8] Refugees International, It’s Suicide to Leave of Stay: Internal Displacement in El Salvador. http://refugeesinternational.org/sites/default/files/07302015_el_salvador.pdf.

[9] UNHCR, Children on the Run, http://unhcrwashington.org/children.

[10] UNCHR, 2015 UNHCR Subregional Operations Profile, Latin America – Costa Rica, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492456.html

[11] UNCHR, 2015 UNHCR Subregional Operations Profile, Latin America – Nicaragua, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e4927a6.html

[12] UNHCR, 2015 UNHCR Subregional Operations Profile, Latin America – Honduras, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492686.html

[13] Melanie Nezer, “Central American Asylum Seekers are Still Fleeing Persecution – They’re Heading South.” http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/opinion/2015/07/13/opinion-central-american-asylum-seekers-are-still-fleeing-persecution-theyre/

[14] The Refugee Act, 8 U.S. C. § 1101 (1980).

[15] Credible fear determinations in the second quarter of FY 2015 were as follows: Guatemala 73.6%, El Salvador 93.7%, and Honduras 91.2%. USCIS Asylum Division, Family Facilities Reasonable Fear. http://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Outreach/PED-CF-RF-familiy-facilities-FY2015Q2.pdf

[16] The Refugee Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (1980)

[17] Instituto de Medicin Legal, Agosto 2015. http://www.csj.gob.sv/Comunicaciones/2015/SEP_15/BOLETINES/PRESENTACI%C3%93N%20IML%20%20Agosto%202015.pdf

[18] Francisco Goldman, From President to Prison: Otto Perez Molina and a Day For Hope in Guatemala (New Yorker: September 4, 2015), http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-president-to-prison-otto-perez-molina-and-a-day-for-hope-in-guatemala

[19] The Refugee Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101, (1980)