Cepeda column: Trump administration policy mistreats migrant children
CHICAGO — Most Americans have no reason to know anything about the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), but it has recently become a flash point in immigration policy.
Initially established in 2000, the alphabet-soup legislation made human trafficking a federal crime. It has been reauthorized over the years to expand its scope to unaccompanied minor children and people from outside the United States. The TVPRA is now being used as a so-called pull factor that anti-immigration zealots say creates a system to be cynically gamed by parents and ne’er-do-wells who try to use defenseless children to sweet-talk their way into our country.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recently told a congressional committee that she believes that “recycling rings” are victimizing children when adult immigrants claim them as family and then pass them on to be used over and over to help other immigrants get into the country.
As multiple news outlets reported, Nielsen did not offer any evidence to place her claim in any type of context. And the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) haven’t provided any reports that could point to multiple specific instances of the sort of coordinated, malicious activity that could rightly constitute a “ring.”
Realistically speaking, there may be some small number of adults who have victimized kids in this way. It’s despicable, but in no way does such behavior represent the vast majority of loving families fleeing their homelands to avoid violence or to seek the opportunity to eat and find housing.
But Nielsen made the unverified claim, and in doing so fed a now-popular caricature of dangerous, criminal migrants. In reality, these people risk everything to plead for asylum in this country, as is their lawful right.
Worse, tall tales about the “migrant hordes” carry water for the kind of headline-seeking policies the Trump administration depends on to convince its base that it’s keeping campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration.
The Trump administration is now on the precipice of undermining the TVPRA for the supposed purpose of helping children.
As it stands, the law requires unaccompanied children to be screened by Customs and Border Protection officers and then be transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, typically within a 72-hour period, for care and further screening. This requirement is meant to put kids in the care of an agency tasked with safeguarding their best interests, instead of an agency whose mission it is to enforce immigration laws.
The Trump administration’s rule changes seem designed to keep out as many children as possible. They would require Central American children who present themselves at the U.S. border seeking asylum to have a qualified parent or guardian who could take them in unless they want to be bounced back home immediately. Or the children could be required to pay an application-processing fee.
“The legal system and policies of this country created a magnet, drawing people to the border and then telling them we don’t want them to be here,” said Adam Estle, field director and director of constituencies for the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy organization. “The reality is that a lot of people won’t be able to meet the higher bar of asylum and will be sent home — but sent home to what?”
Estle told me that most of the organizations he works with, which are mostly religious, agree that there must be balance between compassion and national security.
“As a person of faith, I’ve had the opportunity to express tangible care for some of these young people,” Estle said. “It has been a powerful expression of my faith, and I would hope the government would not take that opportunity away from me and from faith organizations. If the government takes away the opportunity for these kids to have their say in court, it takes away the chance for us to make a difference in their lives.”
Yes, we should get the most out of the money the United States gives Latin American countries for nation building and insist that those dollars are spent directly on the most vulnerable. And our government should spend money wisely within its borders, by expanding personnel at ports of entry and hiring more asylum officers instead of putting up walls.
But preemptively mistreating migrant children so that others don’t do it first isn’t the way to do it. Surely, there are more efficient and humane ways for our president to make America great again.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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