There was a time in American history when runaway slaves were hunted down and returned to their masters. Free the Slaves believes that the United States should not return to those days. There is no question that some of the unaccompanied Central American children who are currently seeking freedom and safety in the U.S. are fleeing modern-day slavery in their home countries. They deserve a fair hearing and American protection. Removing safeguards afforded to these children by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) amendments of 2008 risks inflicting great harm. It would betray the core values of our country while failing to address the root causes of the increase in child refugees.
Assertions have been made that the TVPRA is to blame for the influx of children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Some news articles suggest that smugglers are telling parents of at-risk children that the U.S. offers a "free pass" to minors. There has been no substantiation that this is widespread or that the TVPRA is responsible. On its face, it is implausible to assert that the 2008 amendments to a law first passed in 2000 would provoke a child exodus four to five years later. Clearly, there are other, more compelling factors pushing parents to send their children away.
A recent study by the Center for American Progress shows that a surge of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is actually behind the rise in children fleeing these countries. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world; El Salvador ranks fourth and Guatemala fifth. According to an article in the New York Times, the murder rate of children is up 77 percent in El Salvador compared to a year ago. Children from these three nations are fleeing to countries besides the United States. There has been a seven-fold increase in asylum requests in Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, none of which can be explained by U.S. legislation. It is also telling that refugee children are not coming to the U.S. from the neighboring country of Nicaragua, which is also severely impoverished but has not experienced the same levels of violence as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Scapegoating the TVPRA and rolling back its protections for children as a quick fix will do nothing to solve the real problem behind the spike in children on the move.
The unlikelihood that the TVPRA explains the increase in child refugees can be seen in a table on the Free the Slaves blog. It shows the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service along the southwest border. The number of unaccompanied children held steady or declined in 2009, 2010 and 2011. To attribute the increase in refugee children to the TVPRA, one would have to believe that Central American traffickers and families missed the passage of the reauthorization amendments in 2008 and suddenly discovered them in 2012.
While the circumstances of each child may vary, it is an undisputed fact that some are fleeing slavery or the risk of enslavement. The U.S. State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report makes clear the magnitude of child trafficking in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by criminal gangs and others. Youths are forced to engage in prostitution, drug transport, extortion and murder. Children are used as slaves in agriculture, the garment industry, begging, street vending and domestic service. Children who escape these predations must not be returned to their abusers.
Prior to the 2008 reauthorization of the TVPRA, trafficked children could be returned without adequate safeguards against being sent to the very criminals who had preyed upon them. The reauthorization required the U.S. Secretary of State to negotiate treaties with Mexico and Canada to ensure the safe return of children from those countries to appropriate conditions. In the case of other countries, the law simply requires that if an unaccompanied immigrant child is apprehended, reasonable measures be taken to determine if the child was trafficked, to ensure the safe return of the child to the home country if possible, or, if not, to allow the child to apply for asylum.
Free the Slaves believes that these are reasonable provisions. The law should be followed, not changed. The situation regarding each child should be quickly and fairly evaluated. Safe and expeditious repatriation should occur when possible, and protected status in the U.S. should be afforded when that is not possible. Violating this principle would be an act of cruelty without purpose.
The most immediate problem is that the number of children is overwhelming social, administrative and judicial services. But these children can't simply be thrown over the fence without regard to their welfare and left to the mercies of traffickers and vicious criminal cartels. As a nation, we must live up to our heritage and commit the resources needed to treat the children decently and humanely.
There are appropriate policy and administrative responses. In the near term, infrastructure must be created for their care. Fair and reasonable determinations must be made about their status. Expeditious arrangements must be made for their safe placement, whether in their home countries, the U.S. or a third nation. David Gergen, writing for CNN, has proposed creating safe zones in the affected countries that would be supervised and patrolled by the U.N. An analysis by the Heritage Foundation argues for increased U.S. security assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to re-establish order. Over the longer term, the underlying conditions that are driving terrified children from home must be addressed if the flow of refugees is to be diminished.
We trust that the president and Congress will avoid a hasty, uninformed judgment that may blot the record of our country. The United States has stood against all forms of slavery for generations. Members of both political parties have worked together to create the TVPRA to combat this continuing scourge. The suggestion that this law created a refugee crisis is badly misguided. It should not become the new policy of the U.S. that child slaves and those in imminent danger of slavery at home be expelled as quickly as possible without regard to the consequences. Free the Slaves looks forward to working with people across the political spectrum to devise solutions that are fact-based, humane and effective.