HIAS Statement to the House Judiciary Committee on HR 495, “The Protection of Children Act”

Statement submitted to the Committee on the Judiciary of the

U.S. House of Representatives

 

Markup of HR495, “The Protection of Children Act”

 

Hearing on June 14, 2017

 

Throughout our history, America has been defined by our generosity toward those who seek a safe haven from oppression.  An asylum system that is fair, effective and humane honors both our country’s history and reflects the deeply-held American and Jewish tradition of offering a chance at a new beginning to those who seek safety and freedom.  Once given that opportunity, refugees and asylees become active and productive members of American communities.  The Protection of Children Act is in direct conflict with these traditions and would undermine laws designed to identify and prevent human trafficking as well as send children fleeing widespread gang violence back to countries where they face very real risks of physical and sexual violence.

HR 495 negatively impacts the protections and procedures in place for the fair treatment of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border to seek safety in the U.S.  The majority of these children come from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The violence in these countries has steadily increased as result of transnational gang activity.  El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, have the highest murder rates among children in the world.  Gangs forcibly recruit children and those that refuse are tortured and killed.  The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are unable to ensure citizen safety.

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which HR495 would negatively amend, ensures protection to these unaccompanied children, arriving to the U.S. from a noncontiguous country.  The unaccompanied children provisions of the TVPRA were passed in recognition that screening at the border by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was not a sufficient way to protect children from trafficking and exploitation.  The TVPRA 2008 dictates that children from a noncontiguous country are placed in the care of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and are screened and prepared for removal proceedings.  Children in the care of HHS receive medical and mental health treatment as well as access to education programs.  Children are to be provided with legal counsel to the greatest extent possible.  HHS also facilitates the placement of children with family members already living in the U.S. while the child’s case is considered during removal proceedings.

HR495 would dismantle parts of TVPRA by seeking to increase the speed by which children are returned to their home countries. Section 2 of The Protection of Children Act eliminates the distinction between children from contiguous countries versus noncontiguous. The result would be that all children would be screened by CBP for trafficking and for fear of returning home, greatly increasing the responsibilities of CBP officers and decreasing their ability to actively patrol the border.  This would require children to be interviewed almost immediately after arrival by CPB officers who may not receive the type of training necessary to effectively interview traumatized children.  Children could be returned home within a few days without having had a meaningful opportunity to communicate the factors that would potentially allow them to stay in the country.

The Protection of Children Act would roll back the protections guaranteed to children and return the law to its pre-TVPRA state, which has been recognized as insufficient to protect children.  While the spike in unaccompanied children from Central America and the use of smugglers to get them here is concerning, amending laws designed to protect all children from human trafficking and exploitation is short sighted and ineffective. Smugglers will not change their behavior if children are denied assistance and protection, and children coming into the U.S. need protection.  Now is the time to examine the factors that are causing them to flee, not to reduce assistance and return them as quickly as possible to the violence and poverty that compelled them to leave in the first place. 

The Protection of Children Act is incompatible with the American tradition of assistance to those seeking asylum.  As a global humanitarian leader, the United States must act in a thoughtful and calculated manner thoroughly consistent with international refugee law and American principles of due process.  

Click here to see a letter signed by HIAS and 56 other organizations opposing H.R. 495.