We Must Work to Protect Unaccompanied Children


As a Jewish community that is often in the forefront of refugee protection, we must fight against proposed revisions to a federal law that would force thousands of immigrant children back to dangerous situations in their countries, writes the director of HIAS Pennsylvania. 


Thousands of immigrant children, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are turning themselves in to immigration agents at the U.S. border, requesting sanctuary and protection. Among them are youths like 16-year-old Maria, a victim of human trafficking who is being represented by a HIAS Pennsylvania attorney. She tells us she was abused by her stepfather, and her mother told smugglers to “have their way with her” in lieu of payment. She was held hostage for five days but eventually reached the U.S. border. 
The U.S. Congress is revisiting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 in a way that would force these children back to their country and to danger. As a Jewish community that is often in the forefront of child welfare and protection of refu­gees, we must oppose these revisions and consider other solutions, including granting temporary or refugee status to children escaping violence.
In the report, “Children on the Run,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes children running from high murder rates, gang violence, failed states and parentless homes. Such conditions  have led terrified families to seek protection in other Latin American countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Belize, with a combined 712 percent increase in asylum requests.
HIAS Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia regional Jewish migration agency that works with immigrants of all backgrounds, has firsthand knowledge of this humanitarian crisis. For the past eight years, we’ve provided pro bono legal services to unaccompanied minors and children who have suffered abuse.
Since July 2013, we have interviewed 676 children ranging in age from 4 to 17 who were apprehended at the border and sent to shelters in Pennsylvania. Of these, 68 percent were girls, 13 percent were younger than 10 years, 30 percent were between 11 and 14, and 57 percent were between 15 and 17. More than 90 percent of the children are reunited with relatives throughout the United States who are financially responsible for them. Those with no relatives are placed in foster care. In Pennsylvania, fewer than 15 children are in long-term foster care. 
All the children apprehended at the border, including the 676 we interviewed, face deportation proceedings. In order for a U.S. federal immigration judge to grant them permission to stay here, the children must qualify for protection under our immigration laws. Our legal team determined that over 50 percent of the children we interviewed were eligible for such protection, provided they have assistance to develop their case.
Our work is rooted in our history: For decades we assisted unaccompanied children who arrived in the United States — including those escaping the Holocaust — by providing immigration, legal and social services.
The special protections signed into law by President George W. Bush through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 provides pathways to protection for vulnerable youth escaping violence. To take these protections away, when they are now most needed, would be devastating to the children that continue to come here seeking protection.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for caring for unaccompanied minors and for supporting new refugees. Because its budget projected 8,000 to 10,000 unaccompanied minors instead of the 57,000 that have arrived, the agency has proposed to “re-program” funds away from services that support refugees so it could fulfill its mandate to care for unaccompanied minors. President Barack Obama has asked for a $1.8 billion increase in the agency’s budget. We join with refugee organizations and others who support that request.
These children each deserve an individualized assessment of their situation to determine if they are eligible for asylum or another form of protection. They are especially in need of legal assistance. A study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in early July showed that 71 percent of the children placed in deportation proceedings did not have an attorney to navigate this life-and-death legal proceeding, and that without an attorney, they were much less likely to be allowed to remain in the United States.
We must expand legal representation of these children as a core principle of justice and fairness. We must remember that these children are just that — children. They are scared and they need help. They are not violent or carrying “diseases” as protesters in Murrieta, Calif., shouted when they blocked buses of Central American children being transported by immigration officers to a shelter.
Such xenophobic activity is now rearing its head in Pennsylvania, with harassment of social workers and case managers who work with these youth. Instead of demonizing and dehumanizing children, we must work to ensure they are treated as we would want our own children treated.
Removing legal protections that currently exist and failing to adequately fund legal and social assistance will drive children like Maria further underground, giving more power to the smugglers and traffickers who exploit them.
Judith Bernstein-Baker is executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.


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