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Trump’s assault on immigrant children must stop

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was replete with immigration talking points, many of which were ill-informed or simply untrue. His statements were representative of a continued assault on the immigrant communities that have long built our country. Particularly disturbing were his comments suggesting that violent gang members “took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”

Sandwiched in between his erroneous suggestion that the United States has a history of open borders, and his call to end family reunification immigration policies, Trump urged Congress to “fix the loopholes” that allegedly have allowed MS-13 gang members from Central America to infiltrate our nation’s schools. The “loophole” to which the president likely referred is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and follow up reauthorization acts. These are vital pieces of legislation that protect victims of human trafficking and ensure that persecuted child migrants are given an opportunity to make their claims for protection.  

{mosads}The TVPA and subsequent reauthorization acts form the cornerstone of federal human trafficking legislation, designed to protect victims of sex and labor trafficking and to establish methods for prosecuting traffickers. Moreover, the reauthorization acts took the important step of creating protections for unaccompanied immigrant children — to ensure that victims of severe forms of trafficking and children facing persecution in their home countries were not being repatriated to certain harm or death.


In essence, rather than being immediately deported upon apprehension at the border, these children now are given a chance to make their case before an immigration judge or agency. Far from a free pass, these children — often traumatized survivors of violence — are placed in removal proceedings and, often without an attorney, must navigate a complex judicial system in an effort to stay safe.

The president’s argument that these very children are a threat to our country’s safety is a continuation of the false narrative peddled by some of his closest allies. In a speech to local and national law enforcement in Boston in September, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that unaccompanied immigrant children may actually be gang members “who come to this country as wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Sessions, of course, was merely echoing Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King’s 2013 claim that for every immigrant child who is a valedictorian, there’s “another hundred” immigrant teenagers trafficking in marijuana at the southern border.

This hateful rhetoric finds little empirical support. Beginning in 2011, the United States saw a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children migrating from the “Northern Triangle” — the region of Central America encompassing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This migration peaked in fiscal year 2014, when the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 52,000 Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Thereafter, the United Nations Refugee Agency conducted detailed and extensive interviews with these young people, revealing that nearly two-thirds of them had suffered harms and persecution that warranted international refugee protection. Two discernible patterns emerged that united these children in their need to seek safety: they had suffered violence by organized armed criminal actors — largely gangs — and domestic violence in their homes.

The demonization of vulnerable immigrant children by the Trump administration is part of a pernicious narrative that is both deeply troubling and inimical to who we are as Americans. Moreover, the United States is, in fact, under a legal obligation to protect these children — a majority of whom have experienced pervasive violence, unspeakable trauma and harm rising to the legal definition of persecution. Instead of perpetuating old narratives that are inaccurate and bigoted, we must recognize these children as the refugees that they are and afford them protection, lawful status and a chance to thrive in the United States.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law.

Tags Children's rights Donald Trump Human trafficking Jeff Sessions Steve King Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act

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