As Congress returns to work this month, one grave concern is whether House Republicans will prevail in removing protections for children who are fleeing from violence in Central America. Just before leaving for a month-long vacation, the House passed additional funding to address the large number of children who had entered the U.S. in the first six months of the year. To ensure passage, Republicans attached amendments that would have virtually repealed provisions passed in the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) that guaranteed that children would have the ability to apply for protections of U.S. law.
I find it hard to follow the argument that the TVPRA protections give an incentive for families to send their children here. First, children from Nicaragua, Belize, Panama and other countries are not coming en masse to the U.S. even though they, too, have access to these additional protections. The children who are fleeing are from countries in crisis. Second, these protections don't create any new rights that the children did not have before; they simply provide a process to get them the legal status they have always been entitled to. Third, if smugglers and traffickers actually are using the delays in adjudicating immigration cases to persuade families to take the long journey north, that should be fixed by addressing those deficiencies instead of sending kids back into harm's way.
And make no mistake about it: Sending the children back is putting them in danger. These children face gang violence, human trafficking, coercion and other threats. Children fleeing the violence have been handed over to traffickers and forced to work in the fields or forced to engage in illegal activity such as drug running or prostitution. Surely we would not stand idly by if other countries sent our children into such conditions.
Making precipitous changes in the protections for children fleeing from violence does not only affect the unaccompanied children at our borders, but could lead to threats to children and families globally. Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama have all seen massive increases in children and families fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Our efforts to send children back will serve as an example to these neighboring countries that they, too, need not protect these children.
U.S. actions to reduce protections will also undermine our ability to persuade other countries to help refugees around the world. There are nearly 17 million refugees and a total of over 50 million forcibly displaced worldwide, a significant increase from 2010 given the recent conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan. One in five inhabitants of Lebanon is a refugee. In comparison, the children who have arrived in the United States during the current fiscal year through July 31 constitute less than two-tenths of 1 percent of forcibly displaced worldwide and less than two tenths of 1 percent of the foreign-born population of the United States.
The United States has been a leader in promoting protection for refugees and those who face forcible displacement. Our government routinely presses other countries to protect those who are fleeing violence wherever they may come from. Actions that weaken our own protections for children fleeing violence undermine that leadership. It will inevitably lead to other countries resisting calls by the United States and others to protect those who flee violence and persecution.
Abramowitz is vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom.