A group of House Democratic women are circulating a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner calling for a “clean” funding bill to bolster resources at the U.S.-Mexico border.
They are in particular warning against the inclusion of language that would tweak a 2008 trafficking law they argue would strip apprehended immigrant minors — especially young girls — of protections against speedy removals back to their home countries where they face likely face imminent danger. “We believe the Administration can respond appropriately to this situation without undermining fundamental humanitarian protections for children,” reads the text of the letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call. “Specifically, we strongly oppose any proposal that would erode the protections contained in the 2008 trafficking law or unfairly expedite the screening of children who may be victims of horrible crimes and violence.”
Republicans have said they expect, in the days ahead, to put forth a response to the president’s $3.7 billion emergency funding request that includes a provision revising the 2008 act to make it easier to deport child migrants from Central American countries.
Supporters say that revision would address overcrowding at detention facilities and ease the burden on law enforcement officials, while opponents counter the effects would be devastating.
Many Democrats have said they won’t vote for any funding package that includes tweaks to what’s formally called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, though the letter currently being circulated for signatures stops short of drawing that line in the sand.
The letter is being spearheaded by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform. There are no signatures included in the copy of the memo sent to CQ Roll Call, but co-signers will likely include those who attended a press conference on Wednesday afternoon where the effort was first announced: California Democrats Zoe Lofgren, Loretta Sanchez, Janice Hahn and Judy Chu, along with Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore.
Read the full letter below:
July 16, 2014
Dear Speaker Boehner:
Like most Americans, we are deeply troubled by the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our southwest border. As you know, President Obama is seeking approximately $3.7 billion in additional funding to address the causes and consequences of this heart-wrenching situation. While his request is far from perfect, the consequences of inaction by this Congress would be dire. We therefore write to urge you to bring a clean supplemental spending bill, free of legislative riders, to the floor as soon as possible. We strongly believe it would be inappropriate and contrary to our values to use this critical legislation as a means of undermining the essential protections afforded to vulnerable migrant children under current law.
Driven by extreme violence in Central America, including sexual assault, trafficking, and persecution, tens of thousands of children have fled their homes in hopes of finding safe haven in the United States. Up to 40 percent are girls, many under the age of 12. These are young people like Jenny, age 15 from El Salvador, who described to the Women’s Refugee Commission opening her front door one day discovering pieces of a body thrown in a plastic bag on her doorstep as a warning from the gangs about what would happen to her if she did not become the ‘girlfriend’ of a gang member. And Josephina, a 16-year-old also from El Salvador, who recounted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the head of a local gang told her that he would kidnap her or kill one of her family members if she refused to become his “girlfriend.” While Jenny and Josephina managed to escape, many others have not been so lucky. In Honduras, tragically, 80 minors were murdered in April and 102 were slain in May.
Consistent with our heritage as a nation of immigrants, Americans have always treated people fleeing persecution with dignity and compassion. This time should be no different. Unfortunately, the recent surge of unaccompanied children has strained the ability of our government to meet their most basic needs. We understand that unless Congress acts, the Office of Refugee Resettlement may exhaust its current funding before the end of August. We must quickly respond to the President’s urgent request for an emergency appropriation to address this crisis.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) more than 50 percent of children 12 to 17 years old arriving from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala may have claims to international protection. It would be contrary to our values as a nation to return them to communities where their lives would be placed in grave danger. It is therefore critical that we preserve due process and humanitarian protections for these vulnerable young people. This includes ensuring that they are provided adequate representation to navigate our complex legal system.
While some changes to administrative protocols may be necessary and additional resources are certainly required to adjudicate cases in a fair and efficient manner, we believe the Administration can respond appropriately to this situation without undermining fundamental humanitarian protections for children. Specifically, we strongly oppose any proposal that would erode the protections contained in the 2008 trafficking law or unfairly expedite the screening of children who may be victims of horrible crimes and violence.
Already, under current law, children from contiguous countries can be returned following only a cursory trafficking and persecution screening performed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and agents. Although UNHCR recently found that 64% of unaccompanied Mexican children interviewed raised international protection concerns and the State Department regularly identifies Mexico as a large source country for child sex and labor trafficking, more than 95% of Mexican children were returned in Fiscal Year 2013 following this screening.
According to a previously unreleased UNHCR report delivered to CBP just last month, the screenings are implemented in an inconsistent and ineffective manner. Children are questioned quickly and in public by agents and officers who have received no training in child-sensitive interview techniques. CBP personnel have a poor understanding of the legal definitions for persecution and trafficking, which raises the possibility that children are returned notwithstanding the need of further evaluation. In some instances, children are not advised of their rights and are asked to sign forms that were filled out in advance of the interview. We must not allow short-term political considerations to come before the long-term interests of innocent children.
Thank you for your attention to this request. We look forward to working with you to swiftly pass a supplemental appropriations bill that will address the humanitarian crisis on our border in way that enhances our security and upholds our American values.
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