Finding a humanitarian solution to our border crisis

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As Congress prepares to break for the August recess, we must address the crisis on our border involving unaccompanied minors. We have precious little time to agree on a solution, and if we don’t, the Department of Homeland Security will run out of resources while Congress is away, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will follow soon thereafter. 

Unfortunately, much of the politics surrounding these children has been theatrics. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) plans to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas border, despite the facts that these kids are voluntarily surrendering and the National Guard won’t have the authority to arrest anyone, even if they weren’t. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing that attempted to blame the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for motivating unaccompanied minors to come here. But that program requires U.S. residency since 2007, so these kids don’t even qualify.

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 Here’s the problem with all the theatrics: For the children at the heart of this dispute, this is not an act. The grandstanding of unnecessary deployments and phony hearings distracts from the very real threats they face.

Mayeli, for instance, was just 7 years old in 2009, when armed men tried kidnapping her and her younger sisters as they walked to the grocery store with their mother in Honduras. Her uncle managed to save them by scaring off the attackers with a machete.

The girls were lucky, but others around them were not. Later that year, they witnessed a man be shot to death in front of their house, leaving Mayeli terrified to even set foot outside. By 2010, the crushing poverty in Honduras forced Mayeli’s mother to leave the country in search of income to care for her kids. Mayeli and her sisters stayed behind with extended family, moving from place to place just to survive.

In 2012, they witnessed a second murder — this time a man shot to death in front of a church, and the kids saw every terrible detail. A year later, their mother managed to bring Mayeli and her youngest sister to the safety of the United States.

Mayeli and thousands of others like her are arriving at our doorstep because of the risks they face at home. But the gut-wrenching reality these kids endure gets lost in our politics.

Without taking the human impact into account, it’s much easier for Republicans to justify their proposals to address this problem. Just last week, a House Republican working group unveiled policy recommendations, but their “solutions” involved weakening existing law and rolling back protections for trafficking victims. Expediting removals will mean changing a bipartisan law that is intended to protect childhood asylum seekers at a time when it is needed most.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was passed unanimously with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush, ensures that children like Mayeli can make their case for protection under our laws. It requires children from noncontiguous countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador be placed in HHS custody within 72 hours of arrival and then placed in regular removal proceedings. Children from Mexico, by contrast, are afforded less rigorous protections and can be returned after an initial screening by Customs and Border Protection officers.

Despite significant documentation showing these screenings to be wholly inadequate, the GOP is trying to change our laws so the same swift removal is possible for kids from noncontiguous countries. Undoing these protections will do more than thrust children back into the dangers they so narrowly escaped — it will make trafficking victims around the world more vulnerable with fewer opportunities to seek sanctuary. 

Militarizing the border and fast-tracking deportations are not solutions to this problem, and the ramifications of such actions would be profound. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services found that 63 percent of 925 children screened at the HHS shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas are eligible for immigration relief due to dangers that exist back home. If the law is changed, we could end up sending thousands of children, who may be eligible for legal protection in our country, back into harm’s way.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) recognizes that this is a humanitarian crisis. There is only one way to truly grasp the human impact of what is at stake here, and that is to hear directly from the children involved. That’s why today, the CPC is holding an ad hoc hearing on Capitol Hill featuring three brave children — including Mayeli — who fled violence and peril in Central America in hopes of finding safety here. We urge our colleagues from both sides of the aisle to attend, to hear their stories and to gain a better understanding of the context for which these kids are here. Without that, we’re left with nothing but another political fight. And no amount of theatrics will make up for allowing politics to take precedent over doing what’s right.

Chu represents California’s 27th Congressional District and has served since 2009. She sits on the Judiciary and Small Business committees. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District and has served since 2003. He sits on the Education and the Workforce, and Natural Resources committees. Grijalva is a co-chairman and Chu a vice chairwoman of the CPC.