In this politically divisive time, it is notable when members of Congress work together across the aisle, as they’re doing now to advance legislation to strengthen and reauthorize the cornerstone Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Whatever progress they make will be severely undermined, however, if a bill approved this week by the House Judiciary Committee moves forward.
The unsettlingly ironic Protection of Children Act of 2017 (H.R. 495, sponsored by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas) would erase critical protections for children and young people who are among the most vulnerable to human trafficking, and make traffickers’ jobs much easier.
In 2008, Congress strengthened the TVPA, adding a provision to ensure unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries who were apprehended at the U.S. border have access to fundamental human rights — due process, legal representation, and child-appropriate services. These protections have helped child victims of persecution and human trafficking find refuge and safety, and those protections are more needed today than ever.
Honduras and El Salvador continue to have the world’s highest murder rates. Women and girls in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras endure disturbingly high rates of domestic and sexual violence. Gangs use sexual violence as a strategy to instill fear and control girls, and female homicide rates in these countries are among the highest in the world.
Once they leave their homes, children face harrowing journeys. Many experience sexual violence, and all are at risk of falling into the hands of traffickers.
It’s unconscionable, and in direct contrast to U.S. values, that federal policy would prioritize expedition of unaccompanied children’s return to these horrendous conditions. And yet, that is exactly what the Protection of Children Act (PCA) would do; it is designed to fail these children and place them at even greater risk of harm.
Children fleeing violence, suffering from recent abuse and exploitation, deserve compassionate care and support. They deserve time to eat, rest and feel safe before they are asked to retell their entire history of abuse and trauma. Instead, the PCA offers them a cold chair in a crowded room, interrogation by heavily armed Border Patrol Officers, and a few minutes to give a compelling legal argument.
If a child has not managed to prove within 48 hours that they are a victim of severe trafficking, or present credible evidence that they would be at risk of being trafficked if returned, that child will be sent home.
The PCA would also weaken unaccompanied children’s access to counsel, eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) ability to provide legal representation to children paid for by the government.
Access to counsel is critical for these children, who are unable to navigate the complicated immigration system on their own.
Human traffickers capitalize on the vulnerability of poverty, abuse, discrimination and civil unrest to entrap victims in forced labor and services. Traffickers convince their victims that the police will not protect them.
Human traffickers rely on us to ignore their crimes and enable them to operate in the shadows of lax worker protections, insufficient child welfare systems and unrealistic immigration policies. The Protection of Children Act is yet another gift to the traffickers.
As children and young people become aware that they need to hide from law enforcement to avoid immediate deportation, traffickers will offer to help them hide. And then they will be trapped in a cycle of abuse and exploitation that the TVPA was designed to prevent.
The United States has a long and proud history of providing refuge to the persecuted, and when considering American values, it’s hard to think of anything we place higher than protection of children.
The thought of closing our doors to these vulnerable children, and denying them due process and access to appropriate screening and services, is unthinkable.
Melysa Sperber is the director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a U.S.-based coalition that advocates for solutions to prevent and end all forms of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. Jean Bruggeman is the executive director of Freedom Network USA, a national alliance of advocates working with human trafficking survivors to ensure access to justice, safety and opportunity.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.