Trump’s DREAMer Negotiations Threaten Other Child Migrants

A little more than one month after President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, his administration issued a list of “immigration principles”—a set of demands in exchange for passage of the DREAM Act—that puts a different group of child migrants at risk: unaccompanied children.

The policy changes proposed in the White House principles would risk sending unaccompanied children back to their persecutors or traffickers and holding many other unaccompanied children in detention centers long-term. By making these demands in exchange for the passage of the DREAM Act, the administration is cruelly trying to play two vulnerable groups against each other.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) governs the protection of unaccompanied children entering the United States. This legislation was enacted in 2008 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Under current law, most children who arrive unaccompanied at a U.S. border are placed in federal custody with the opportunity to make their case for protection before an asylum officer or immigration judge.

They are also guaranteed placement in the “least restrictive setting”—meaning, in most cases, a children’s shelter—and access to legal counsel when possible. These are critical protections for ensuring that children are not thrown into jail-like facilities or sent back into the hands of abusers.

However, different criteria apply to unaccompanied children from Mexico and Canada, who are instead immediately deported from the United States unless a border official finds that they meet a narrow set of exceptions, including having a fear of returning to their home country or being a trafficking victim. The Trump Administration wants to apply these narrow standards to all unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border.

But as the law stands, children in this category are still not being protected. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that border officials have an insufficient understanding of the law to properly screen children for protection needs and, as a result, likely send many children back into harm. Moreover, UNHCR reported that they use inappropriate styles of interviewing, such as relying on Google Translate or hand gestures to fill the language gap and interviewing children in common areas in clear earshot of unrelated adults and children.

During Fiscal Year 2016, 11,926 children from Mexico were apprehended at the southern border of the United States, representing nearly 20 percent of all unaccompanied children apprehended there. However, only three percent of unaccompanied children in ORR custody that year were Mexican, meaning that the vast majority of Mexican children are immediately deported. Yet despite the evident cruelty and lack of due process in this treatment, the White House is demanding that it be extended to all unaccompanied children.

Trump’s immigration principles also demand the termination of the Flores settlement agreement, which sets standards for the detention, release, and treatment of children in government custody. Flores requires the government to favor release of minor children over long-term detention. As a result, most unaccompanied children are released from government custody in about one month to a family member living in the United States or to licensed foster care program. Flores also sets minimum standards for the care of minor children, including adequate medical and mental health care, appropriate educational services, recreation, and visitation with family members.

By proposing a termination of Flores, the White House immigration principles would allow unaccompanied children to be held in long-term detention, denied the opportunity for family reunification, and lose the guarantees of basic rights while in government custody. This means that an asylum-seeking child, who has already suffered persecution and trauma, may be locked in detention for a year during a drawn out asylum case, away from family and supportive networks, and without access to education or even adequate healthcare.

Experts widely recognize, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, that long-term detention is harmful to the physical and mental health of children. That harm is often permanent. Therefore, by eliminating these standards without simultaneously putting in place a stronger and more protective framework, the U.S. government risks creating a lost generation of children who have been denied basic human rights.

Sacrificing the safety and well being of one group of children in order to save another is cruel and un-American. No such trade-off is necessary. President Trump should stop playing games with the lives of vulnerable people and instead put in place protections and standards that uphold American values and fulfill our international obligations. Congress must stand up and pass a clean DREAM Act that does not ransom the lives of children in need of our protection.

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Published on October 24, 2017

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