An influx of Central American children at the United States border has re-opened the debate around U.S. immigration policies. Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, argues the government should take immediate actions to resolve the issue.
I’ve lived in the United States for the past six decades. I’ve worked with presidents and cabinet secretaries, and with the most desperate refugees from around the world. Today’s emergency with child refugees at the border is just that: today’s emergency. This is not a new phenomenon, nor the most challenging immigration question we’ve faced – it’s just the one on our doorstep today. How we respond will define us as a nation.
The first immigrants to arrive in the United States through Ellis Island were children. In 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore and her two younger brothers entered the United States. They had made a 12-day trip in steerage across the ocean to join their parents, who were already living in New York. Their parents had arrived from Ireland four years earlier, leaving their children behind as they found work in the United States. Does this sound familiar?
Rescuing children from troubled and war-threatened regions is not new for the United States. In the early 1960s, a program known as Operation Pedro Pan brought Cuban children to Miami if their families opposed the new revolutionary government. Former Florida Senator Mel Martinez was one of those children. In the ’80s, we brought Amerasians over from Vietnam so they would not suffer discrimination due to their parentage.
Today, unaccompanied immigrant children are crossing our southern U.S. border in large numbers and asking for protection. How will we respond?
On Aug. 6, I attended a meeting at the White House in which U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke about the children. He said all the right things about U.S. values and the need to protect children. He also asserted that “nothing’s changed” in Central America in the past six months to a year – that “the neighborhoods are no more violent or less violent.” What’s different, he said, is that drug cartels and smugglers have discovered they can make money by transporting children to the border.
Biden’s probably right that nothing has changed in Central America, because before the bad guys got involved, fewer children were coming on their own: 6,560 came in 2011; 13,625 in 2012; and 24,668 in 2013; whereas more than 54,000 children have already come so far in 2014.
Or he could be wrong. Perhaps prior to this year, only the really brave and desperate children embarked upon the dangerous journey alone. Or perhaps the children arriving now are still escaping extreme violence, but smugglers are facilitating their trips.
Unfortunately, smugglers always prey on refugees: many Jews paid for false papers to flee Nazi Germany; Vietnamese and Cubans paid to get on small boats to escape Communist regimes; and right now, Syrians are paying “guides” to take them to the Jordanian and Turkish borders.
After a century of serving the uprooted at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, we know a refugee situation when we see one. We also know that hand-wringing and finger-pointing don’t protect children or fill their bellies.
That’s why we’ve proposed six actions that the United States should take to resolve this issue. We’ve personally handed our proposal to every member of Congress, and we’ve spoken about it with every reporter who’s called. We’re getting some traction on these simple, yet tested ideas:
1. Respect families by allowing parents from El Salvador and Honduras who reside legally in the United States under Temporary Protected Status to apply for their minor children to reunite. The children’s status would then be linked to their parents. This would immediately reduce immigration court backlogs, and would apply to an estimated 30–40 percent of the children surrendering at the border.
2. Keep kids out of the courtrooms by instituting a Children’s Corps based on the Asylum Officer Corps model. Officers will have training in child-sensitive interview techniques and Best Interest Determination standards, and will determine whether a child is eligible for legal relief. This will move the adjudication process from an adversarial judicial process to an administrative process for most children. Reports indicate that 40–60 percent of these children may be eligible for legal protection.
3. Help children avoid the dangerous journey by allowing them to apply for refugee status from their home country. We’ve previously used this process so that Soviet Jews, Vietnamese, and Cubans could avoid life-threatening escapes. Additionally, other North and South American countries may be willing to accept the children for resettlement.
4. Engage the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to determine international protection needs using its well-established procedures. The UNHCR could then refer cases to the U.S. Department of State for further interviewing and approval before resettlement in the United States, and possibly other countries.
5. Forgive the children by granting Children’s Protected Status (CPS) to all unaccompanied children who have already been brought into custody. We used this approach with Cubans and Haitians who arrived illegally in 1980. The government could announce a cut-off date after which new arrivals would be subject to expedited removal. Granting CPS will relieve the government of the burden and cost of adjudicating the cases of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who are at the border, and will increase the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to handle other immigration cases.
6. Introduce hope by creating a Regulated Entry Procedure for 10,000 unaccompanied immigrant children per year per country from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. As precedent, a lottery system has allowed 20,000 Cubans to enter the United States annually for the past 34 years. The children would enter the United States legally through a process managed and regulated by the U.S. government.
I love the United States, and I have high expectations for its international behavior and reputation. We can do better, and I commit to being part of the solution.