Guest: Care for children crossing border from Central America
The U.S. must not turn its back on a generation of children fleeing violence in Central America, according to guest columnists Paula Clapp and Mauricio Vivero.
Special to The Times
As Congress returns to work, it must help children who are coming to the U.S. from Central America.
Many in the Republican Party are trying to punish kids coming over the border by stripping their legal protections under current U.S. law. Many advocates in Washington state will not turn their backs on this generation of children fleeing forced gang inscription, sexual trafficking and the highest murder rates in the world.
In the past 12 months, more than 60,000 unaccompanied immigrant children have reached the southern U.S. border, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These vulnerable children have been fleeing extreme poverty, high rates of violence, murder and forced gang indoctrination and weak governments that fail to protect them. Many seek to reunite with one or more parents or family members already living in the U.S.
Our organization, the Seattle International Foundation, has been investing in effective programs to reduce poverty in Central America for many years. We’ve seen firsthand the violence, corruption and lack of opportunity these children seek to escape.
These children pay a tremendous price to reach the U.S. and some die along the way, while others who have been deported to their home countries were murdered soon after. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, many women and girls are raped, sexually assaulted or sexually trafficked as they travel through Mexico.
More than 130 Washington state nonprofit organizations, faith leaders and other charities have joined together to urge elected officials to address the needs of these young migrants. They want the U.S. policy to shift toward smarter development and investment in Central America that increases economic and educational opportunities for marginalized young people. These groups are all united in the belief that the legal rights of these children must be protected.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, signed into law in 2000 by President George W. Bush, is at the heart of this recent national debate. This law, reauthorized by Congress in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013, provides these migrant children important legal protections. It requires that all unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. illegally get screened as potential victims of human trafficking.
According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,nearly 60 percent of these migrant children in American custody have legitimate claims to asylum and other international legal protections.
But without a lawyer and advocate by their side, these legal rights become meaningless, and these children won’t stand a chance against the complex federal bureaucracy.
So far, Congress has failed to appropriate any additional funding for this wave of vulnerable children. The U.S. government must provide the necessary humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of these children now in our country’s care. It must ensure that these children’s rights to due process under our laws are met, including legal representation.
Additionally, Congress and the president should develop a strategic vision and funding to address the root causes in Central America responsible for children fleeing their homes. Investing in economic and educational opportunities in these countries helps people help themselves. It reduces the need and desire for people to leave. Good foreign policy also means being a good neighbor.
These children are already here and part of our community. To date this year, 211 unaccompanied children from Central America have arrived in Washington state. Local organizations are working hard to help these children, such as the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is providing critical legal assistance. And YouthCare, which helps homeless youths with a variety of services and support, is providing emergency shelter to these children in Seattle.
This situation is an opportunity to demonstrate the content of our nation’s character and the depth of our compassion. It’s up to each citizen to rise to the occasion.
Paula Clapp is the co-founder of the Seattle International Foundation and vice president of the board of StolenYouth. Mauricio Vivero is CEO of the Seattle International Foundation.