Congress passes vital funds to address causes of migration, child welfare at border

It’s National Migration Week, and as Congress gets down to business in the new year, members have an opportunity to ensure that important measures recently signed into law realize the promise of addressing both the root causes of migration and ensuring the welfare of unaccompanied children seeking safety in the United States.

Before the House and Senate adjourned last month, they passed several funding bills that provide critical funds for the care of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children as well as efforts to improve conditions in the countries many of these children have fled. Now signed into law, these measures provide nearly $20 million to combat sexual and gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as another $45 million to combat corruption and impunity in Central America. The allocation of these funds demonstrates a commitment to the ultimate goal of ensuring that no child is forced to flee his or her home in search of safety.

Kids in Need of Defense’s (KIND) extensive research in Central America and the stories of KIND’s clients confirm that sexual and gender-based violence forces many women, girls, and LGBTI persons to flee El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Family members, gangs and drug traffickers most frequently perpetrate these heinous acts, but violence by police and other authorities is also widespread. Despite pervasive sexual and gender-based violence in these three countries, staggering impunity levels persist, with an average of less than 10 percent of cases resulting in conviction. Many individuals and families fleeing this violence are potentially eligible for protection under U.S. law.

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Among those who suffer most are women and girls in Central America who face high rates of domestic violence. Research reveals that more than 100 cases of violence against women are reported each day in Guatemala. A 2017 study conducted by El Salvador’s Ministry of Economic and General Office of Statistics and Census found that 67.4 percent of women and girls in El Salvador report having experienced gender-based violence at some point in their life. The National Emergency System in Honduras receives approximately 4,000 calls of domestic violence each month. And as staggering as those statistics are, actual number of incidents in each country is likely much higher because many of these crimes go unreported.

Funds to combat sexual and gender-based violence in Central America are welcome and much-needed, and we applaud Congress for supporting efforts to prevent, investigate, and prosecute such violence and to expand services for survivors. We know that progress often takes time, and unaccompanied children facing these threats right now may be forced to flee to the United States in search of safety. When they do, the United States should treat them as children and offer them safe and appropriate care until they can be reunified with a family member. Recognizing this need, new funding measures provide needed financial support and increased oversight for the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s program that provides care and custody of unaccompanied children until they can be reunified with a family member.

The new law also includes measures to improve treatment of children at the border, including directing DHS to hire child welfare professionals to oversee the care of children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. This is a vital step in protecting kids at the border and one that reflects the United States’ long commitment to caring for unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States in search of safety. Migrant and refugee children in government custody deserve to be treated as children first and foremost—and to be cared for by professionals with the experience and expertise to ensure their safety and well-being. In contrast to U.S. Custom and Border Protection officials, who are specially trained in law enforcement, licensed child welfare professionals are specially trained in the care and screening of children, including recognizing potential abuse, screening for trafficking or protection needs, identifying medical needs, and ensuring children are provided with basic necessities, such as food, clothing, and hygiene. KIND has long advocated for the placement of professionals with child welfare expertise at the border to ensure the safe and appropriate treatment of the most vulnerable in our government’s custody. We stand ready to support the implementation of these important provisions.

Until we reach our ultimate goal of ensuring no child feels they must flee their home in search of safety, KIND will continue to work with Congress and across the U.S. government to ensure that every child on the move is treated like a child and is protected by policies that reflect our nation’s commitment to keeping kids safe. The funding measures recently signed into law take an important step toward that end.

Jennifer Podkul is Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).