We must do right by children: Start by changing harmful border policies

Children of Immigrants

Photo by Nishant Vyas from Pexels

As I read the CBS News story about 15-year-old Marjory, I could feel my blood boiling. When her home in Guatemala was no longer safe for her due to threats of sexual abuse, she fled to the United States. Despite the urgency, she had the presence of mind to bring evidence of her abuse from a local judge. In another time, what happened to her once she got to the southern border would have been relatively straight forward: Under federal law, Marjory would have been transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and sponsored for release by her father in Pennsylvania, where she could then pursue her case for legal protection. Instead, she was sent back to danger in Guatemala with no questions asked.

Marjory is one of roughly 13,000 unaccompanied children whom the government illegally turned away from our border and one of more than 1,400 deported to Guatemala since March. Exploiting a rarely used provision of a 1944 public health law and twisting the arm of the CDC, the Trump administration shut down the border under the guise of public health, with no exceptions for asylum-seeking individuals, families, and children.

This “expulsion” policy has repeatedly put children into harm’s way. Roughly 13,000 children were denied their right to be reunited with family and apply for protection. The New York Times reported that at least 208 children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador were forced to return to Mexico in the early months of the pandemic, even if they were not with a loving adult and they had no family or support in Mexico. We have seen the consequences of leaving children and families stuck at the southern border before. Human Rights First found 1,114 publicly reported cases of violent acts against asylum seekers and migrants under the Remain in Mexico policy, at least 265 of which were children who were kidnapped or nearly kidnapped. Additionally, hundreds of children and families were placed in hotels for days before they were expelled, violating the Flores Settlement Agreement’s mandate that all children in government custody be in licensed facilities.

Thankfully, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and OxFam sued the administration for its expulsions of unaccompanied children, and a federal judge sided with them and ordered an end to the practice. Not only did this ruling come too late for Marjory and many other children like her, the Trump administration has expelled at least 66 children in violation of the order. The order also does not apply to thousands of other asylum-seekers, including children in families, who are still seeking safety.

If President-elect Biden does not act quickly to end this policy, more children and other asylum-seekers will be denied their right to seek safety at our border. With such a policy in place, the United States cannot reclaim its legacy as a beacon of hope for those fleeing danger.

Our laws are clear that those who have fled persecution, torture and other types of violence must be allowed to seek protection in our country. We signed an international treaty saying so. Forty years ago, Congress passed and President Carter signed a law that said so. Our obligation to not send people back to a country where they would face danger is almost absolute. Yet, this administration has done it time and again. We have an opportunity to stop repeatedly violating human rights and restore our government’s adherence to the rule of law and the dignity and safety of every human being that comes to our border.

It is patently false that we as a country must choose between protecting public health and our legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe haven for adults, families, and children who have fled persecution and violence. Public health officials have said so. They have given the government a blueprint for how to continue to process asylum-seeking families and children safely. As these recommendations note, humane and orderly border processing requires the end of other harmful immigration policies, such as prolonged custody by Customs and Border Patrol and the use of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, that are entirely within the administration’s control to end. Border processing at any time, and especially during a pandemic, should quickly process children and families so that they can join family or other sponsors in the United States as they wait for their case. For unaccompanied children, ORR policies that prolong detention, like information-sharing with DHS, must end so that children can be safely released to family as soon as possible after necessary public health safety measures are followed.

U.S. border policy must prioritize the safety and well-being of children without compromise. That means that from the moment children and families arrive at our border, they should be met with welcome—in child-appropriate spaces where their basic needs are met, where professionals with specific experience and training speak to them, where they can stay together with loving family members, where they can move to their next destination with confidence that the system they are about to go through is fair and just. I think Marjory put it best in her message to the U.S. government after she was forcibly returned to Guatemala:

“Listen to us, look at our cases to see how we feel after all that has happened and give us an opportunity to be with our family, who we love.”