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Finding refuge

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 - Updated: 7:36 AM

By STEVEN H. SCHULMAN,

MARU CORTAZAR and DEBORAH FOWLER

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Last week, President Barack Obama announced new measures meant to address the recent increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at our nation's border with Mexico. This crisis -- which the administration has rightly characterized as a "humanitarian" crisis rather than a border security or policy crisis -- is born of increasing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

There is no dispute as to the conditions these children are fleeing; experts agree that the situation is inordinately perilous, citing "pervasive, pernicious and often uncontrolled violence." Murder of women and girls in Honduras has increased almost 350 percent since 2005. The murder rates in Guatemala and El Salvador are not far behind -- rates that dwarf the U.S. murder rate. Attorneys and advocates interviewing children housed in Texas confirm that these are the forces that the children repeatedly report as having motivated them to seek protection in the United States.

Unfortunately, the newly announced measures not only fail to appropriately recognize the horrific conditions that mark this as a humanitarian crisis, they also threaten to perpetuate, rather than alleviate, the problems that initially led to this "surge." In addition to indicating that he intends to step up law enforcement strategies at the border, the president's letter to Congress notes that he will ask Congress for the authority to "expedite" the removal process for Central American children, processing their cases the same way that children from contiguous countries -- Mexico and Canada -- are handled. Congress passed the Trafficking Victim Protection Act, the Refugee Act and other laws protecting those fleeing violence so that the United States would remain a beacon of hope, the City upon a Hill. Crises such as these are the time to enforce and abide by these protective laws, not to back away from them through waivers and other maneuvering.

Indeed, the government has already demonstrated that its processing of unaccompanied Mexican minors is insufficient and not in accordance with the TVPRA, giving us no comfort that this proposed process is an appropriate way to address this crisis. In 2011, after two years of research that included visits to 14 border sites in the United States and Mexico and interviews with close to 200 children and government officials, Appleseed's national and Mexico offices published Children at the Border, which exposes the deep flaws associated with the way that the screening and repatriation of Mexican children is handled on both sides of the border. The report documents problems at almost every step of this process, making recommendations for both the Mexican and U.S. governments that would ensure the children's need for protection and legal rights are appropriately recognized.

Perhaps of deepest concern: our review of the existing process for Mexican children documents that this "fast track" makes them particularly attractive to drug traffickers and smugglers who see their quick return as ensuring that they can continue to be exploited. Smugglers repeatedly coerce the youth to risk their lives by making the journey across the border over and over, so that the youth become "recidivist" crossers. It is almost impossible for these children to escape this cycle once they've been ensnared. Recent reports confirm this alarming trend, which has worsened since we issued Children at the Border.

This "fast track" treatment thus creates enormous risks by prioritizing expedience and convenience over the children's safety and protection. To add the Central American youth to a process that is already failing Mexican youth is not only wrongheaded, it presents the possibility that the U.S. will simply create a new pool of children for smugglers and gangs to repeatedly exploit.

Expediting the removal of Central American youth is not the solution to the current crisis; it is the antithesis of a solution. A solution would be to ensure that all these children -- Mexican and Central American -- are appropriately screened so that they are not being returned to exploitation and violence, and that we are mindful when we do repatriate them that we do so in a way that values their safety and best interests.

Martin Luther King Jr. -- in his last speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated -- referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan, noting that those who did not stop to help asked, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" The strength of the Good Samaritan, according to King, was that he instead asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

As a country, this crisis demands that we focus not on the cost and inconvenience associated with helping these children, but instead on the costs of failing to help. They are children. They need our protection -- not a swift removal to the same circumstances that drove them to a desperate journey to find safety in this City upon a Hill.

STEVEN H. SCHULMAN, MARU CORTAZAR and DEBORAH FOWLER are representatives of Appleseed, a nonprofit network of public interest justice centers and professionals dedicated to building a just society through legal, legislative and market-based structural reform.

     

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