Congress should support bill to grant temporary visas to Syrian refugee children

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) added to his long list of credits when, in the dying hours of the 114th Congress, he introduced a bill that should cheered everyone’s holidays—HR 6510: The Save the Children Act of 2016.

The act authorizes granting temporary visas to 25,000 Syrian refugee children, ages three to 10, to live in the U.S. until the civil war in their country ends. These children, to be chosen by their families or orphaned, will be able to live in the homes of American families who will volunteer to host them. The costs of their care will be covered by the host families themselves or by charitable organizations.

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These visas will expire six months after our government determines that hostilities have ceased and a durable peace process has begun. The grace period will allow time for the families of the children to re-establish their households in Syria before the children return.

The Department of State, together with Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services will coordinate the inflow and return of these children.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within HHS will be in charge of working with voluntary associations, other charities, and child advocacy organizations to place these children among host families that have volunteered to house them, or into the foster care for refugee minors already approved by the ORR.

The Save the Children Act builds on previous such programs for unaccompanied children that have been a great success, especially Operation Peter Pan, during which a large number of unaccompanied Cuban minors were brought to the United States between 1960 and 1962. The program was created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Initially, the children were required to have a visa in order to enter the United States. However, on Jan. 3, 1962, the U.S. Department of State announced that Cuban minors no longer needed such visas. Several major American corporations helped finance the accommodation of these children. One of them was Mel Martinez, who grew up to become a U.S. Senator and the first Latino chairman of the Republican Party.

The Kindertransport in 1938 provides further precedence for this Act. While the Nazis were already shipping tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps, they allowed Jewish children to emigrate if others overseas would take them in. The actions taken by British citizens to shelter these Jewish children from 1938 to 1940 were informally known as the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport in German). Great Britain took in thousands of children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia with the understanding that the children return to their homes after the war was finished. 

The bill grew out of a policy proposal formulated by Dr. Amitai Etzioni of The George Washington University. It was drafted by Layth Elhassani at Covington and Burling LLP as part of his pro bono work. 

Despite the spirit of charity that underpins the American experience, the U.S. so far has assisted fewer Syrian asylum seekers than much smaller countries with much more limited resources. Granted there are valid security reasons for wanting to limit flows of migration, but these do not apply to children aged three to 10. By supporting this bill, which of course will have to be introduced in the 115th Congress, members and the public can show that we care about children ravaged by a horrible civil war, without endangering our own. 

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.