Just as I began writing this piece about Hector* -- one of many children who have arrived, unaccompanied, in the U.S. since last October- - news broke that at least five of the children the U.S. recently deported back to Honduras, Hector's country of origin, were murdered when they were returned. This tragic news only underscores the need for action to address this crisis and help children like Hector.
Hector's parents owned a small business in their town in Honduras. The local gang threatened them with violence unless they made sizeable extortion payments each month. Eventually, the gang demanded that Hector's parents allow drug sales to take place in their store. They refused, and shortly thereafter, Hector's father was shot and killed in public. Fearing for his life, Hector, who is 16, fled the town and sought refuge in the United States. And now Hector needs Safe Horizon's help -- in the form of legal representation by our Immigration Law Project -- to avoid being deported back to Honduras.
Some lawmakers have contended that current immigration laws, including the bi-partisan Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA), are somehow responsible for the dramatic influx over the past several months of Central American youth seeking refuge in the United States. We couldn't disagree more, and that's why Safe Horizon is working diligently to preserve the common-sense safeguards created by the TVPA.
What's really transpiring is that children are fleeing extreme violence in their home countries and seeking the opportunity to live their lives free from violence and fear.
For unaccompanied minors who make their way to New York City, Safe Horizon's Immigration Law Project can offer the resources they need to recover and face the daunting legal challenges that lie ahead. We also connect them with other services such as housing and mental health treatment to address the trauma of a violent past and the fear of an uncertain future.
And let's be clear: the journey these children undertake is filled with danger. Some are trafficked. Others are sexually assaulted. Still others arrive in the U.S. only to face exploitation and abuse by predators right here in our backyard.
I cannot imagine the dire circumstances in which I would allow my daughters to travel thousands of miles alone to a foreign country - just to find safety. But the tragic reality is thousands of children like Hector and their families are forced to make that very choice.
Hector is one of more than 63,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the border since October. The majority come from countries where extreme violence by gangs and drug traffickers is a daily reality. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, higher than even Iraq or Afghanistan. El Salvador and Guatemala are both in the top five.
We at Safe Horizon believe that kids like Hector deserve a fair shot at presenting their case in court. Research shows that, with legal representation, Hector stands a chance of obtaining asylum, which would allow him to escape the life-threatening violence back home. Without legal representation - facing a judge and making a case all by himself - his chances are close to zero.
But the overwhelming majority of children cannot access this kind of assistance. Legal service providers are stretched to capacity, and the federal resources necessary to expand this capacity have yet to materialize.
I hope that everyone reading this will consider that unaccompanied minors have risked their lives to find safety in our country. And I urge you to speak out on their behalf, so that everyone has a better understanding of their plight and the need for a more proactive, thoughtful and compassionate response to this humanitarian crisis.
* not his real name