Opinion

Congress Must Act Immediately to Protect Vulnerable Children Seeking Safety in the United States

The recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee oversight hearing examining U.S. Customs and Border Protection took place against a deeply disturbing backdrop as the Trump administration continues sustained efforts to deny protections for vulnerable children seeking safety in the United States. The administration continues to weaponize the COVID-19 crisis and keep U.S. borders closed and push policies designed to separate families. With thousands of children put in harm’s way as a result, Congress must act now and exercise its power to demand the administration implement the laws designed to protect children faithfully as Congress intended.

Almost two months ago, the Trump administration, under the mask of a pandemic, closed the U.S. borders to asylum seekers. Children at the U.S.-Mexico border are being told by CBP that this country is “closed” and that they cannot enter and must stay in Mexico. In the hearing, acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan claimed that all children are being screened at the border. This is false. The truth is, CBP is not even screening children to ensure they are traveling with a family member or other safe adult. They are being summarily pushed back into Mexico or put on a flight back to their country of origin without any assurance that they are not being put directly into the hands of traffickers, or dangerously exposed to the virus on an international flight. Children are not being asked the same questions CBP have traditionally used for screening children and are even being denied the opportunity to speak with an agent or officer in private separate from the adult they are travelling with.

Shamefully, in hundreds of cases, the administration has put children who arrive at the border alone on deportation flights back to their countries of origin in Central America without due process and in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The TVPRA requires that all children who present at the border be screened to ensure they are being protected against return to persecution or serious danger, an obligation abandoned by the administration. This clear break with the law continues today, and so far more than 2,000 children have been turned away at the border. Congress must exercise its oversight and make clear that vital laws enacted to protect kids are not skirted in the name of public health, which is exactly what this administration has done.

While these practices at the southern border are egregious, they are only part of the administration’s plan at using children as pawns in a political power grab. An equally troubling component of its anti-immigration agenda is to continue a practice many believe ended in 2018: family separation. While the optics of the administration’s current iteration of this policy are different, the end goal is the same — terrorize children and families to discourage them from asking for protection in the United States.

Last month’s clear order from a federal judge overseeing the Flores settlement agreement that the government immediately release children from the dangerous family detention facilities must not result in a revival of family separation by keeping the parents locked up when their children are released. Instead of releasing these families so they may safely finish with the legal process to apply for protection, the administration is choosing to detain them at great fiscal and moral cost. Detention of families, including young children, is cruel and unnecessary as there are established, successful programs to release families and ensure that they continue to appear in immigration court.

When it passed the TVPRA, Congress stood up in a bipartisan way to put the safety of children ahead of the partisan politics that often divide our nation. It affirmed our nation’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable among us and do our part to end the scourge of human trafficking. Congress should not allow the administration to use a global health pandemic to further its political goals by violating the law. These actions cannot go unchecked, leaving thousands of children in danger.

KIND urges Congress to act immediately to protect these kids. They need Congress to provide a lifeline and not to legitimize the administration’s unlawful actions through silence. Congress should conduct vigorous oversight and make clear that vital laws enacted to protect kids are not skirted under the pretense of protecting public health and ensure that federal dollars are not being used for programs that run counter to its obligations. The administration should implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and consider unaccompanied children an exception to the border closure while following public health protocols to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Families being held in detention must be released. Parents should never be forcibly separated from their children, especially during a pandemic where detention facilities have quickly become hotspots for the virus. And, fast-tracked deportation of children must stop: Children must have meaningful access to safety screenings and full and fair court proceedings to ensure they are not returned to harm.

In 2018, when the American public saw this administration targeting immigrant children and separating families, it rose up and emphatically denounced these policies, a step that led to concrete actions to protect children. Last month’s hearing showed that the administration has not learned that Americans will not stand for cruelty to children. The administration needs to be held accountable and members of Congress have a responsibility to represent the will of their constituents to put an end to the unnecessary policies that place the lives of children alone at the U.S. border in grave danger.

Jennifer Podkul is vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense.

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