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In testimony to Senate Appropriations Committee, Tahirih Calls for Funding to Ensure Humanitarian Response to Children Crossing Border

The root causes of the flight of refugee children from their homes may be complex, but our obligation to protect them is not.

Regardless of why they left home, or what they would face if they should return, we are legally obligated to offer them shelter and basic care. We are also obligated to provide them with due process while they make their claims for humanitarian protection.

Unfortunately, in response to this refugee flow, many are calling for changes in these basic obligations in order to “stem the tide” of children coming to this country. This would be devastating, and could signal a willingness to shift policies protecting due process for all immigrants when such situations arise.

Tahirih stands opposed to rolling back any due process or other protections. We also oppose any increase in the detention of children in jail-like facilities and their deportation before they have had a meaningful opportunity to ask for humanitarian protection.

Instead, we seek increased funding for the agencies that run the shelters and offer services to immigrant children, as well as funding to help with backlogs among the officers and judges who are trained to adjudicate these cases.

Tahirih urges that the children fleeing violence in Central America who are arriving at the U.S. border be treated as humanely as possible while their claims for protection are adjudicated by qualified personnel.

Tahirih objects to the President’s Emergency Supplemental Request for Unaccompanied Children insofar as it prioritizes the detention and rapid repatriation of these children and does not include measures to adequately protect their safety, well-being, or due process rights.

In addition, we strenuously object to any proposals that would diminish existing protections for immigrant children. The law currently provides a bare minimum of safeguards for the basic due process rights of children who may have claims for humanitarian protection in the United States. These must not be rolled back through legislation or policy of any kind.

Tahirih strongly recommends that the Senate Appropriations Committee consider the following:

    1. Funding should be directed towards care and adjudication for children, not detention and removal. Any appropriations made through this supplemental should prioritize the safety and wellbeing of the children. HHS provides shelter to children who have survived the arduous journey to the United States. Under the law, all children must be quickly transferred from DHS custody to HHS custody. Overcrowding in HHS facilities leads to children and families remaining in ICE detention. ICE detention facilities are not equipped to hold children humanely and should be avoided at all costs. As such, funding to HHS so that it can increase its capacity is essential. The current Supplemental Request seeks an unreasonably high proportion of funds for detention and removal.

    2. Funding should be directed to Citizenship and Immigration Services. Tahirih is seriously concerned that the Supplemental Request does not include additional funds specifically for CIS. DHS must be funded to increase and improve the capability of CIS and its asylum officers to offer timely and thorough credible fear interviews. Each child’s fear of return to his or her country of nationality should at a minimum be assessed by asylum officers who are trained to interview children while using accurate translation. CBP officers do not have the specialized training to conduct these interviews. The current crisis does not justify lowered standards of protection and non-specialist officers conducting critical life-or-death interviews; it demands a greater vigilance to ensure due process especially for such vulnerable migrants.

    3. Funding to hire additional immigration judges must be increased. The plan put forward by the DOJ to move unaccompanied children’s cases to the high priority list, along with detained individuals, will not be possible without increased funding. Without increased funding, an already strained system reflecting delays of several years for adjudications would be even more pronounced. We recommend increasing the amount currently proposed for the DOJ for the purpose of hiring more qualified immigration judges than currently envisioned.

    4. Funding must be allocated to legal services. Whether in detention, HHS custody, or released to relatives, unaccompanied minors need legal counsel to navigate our complex immigration system and access the humanitarian protections to which they may be entitled. As unaccompanied minors, they face difficult decisions upon arrival without anyone to consider their best interests and advise them accordingly. Allocations must be made for pro bono legal services provided by charitable organizations to ensure fairness and due process for these children.

    5. Protections provided by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act must not be curtailed in any fashion. The TVPRA established baseline protections for children entering the U.S. which must not be compromised under any circumstances. The Administration seeks to place the power to exercise discretion and expeditiously remove children in the hands of uniformed border officers who are not trained in assessing claims for humanitarian protection. This is a dangerous proposition. Unaccompanied children are often exhausted and malnourished, traumatized, without guardians or legal counsel, and detained by uniformed officers. Their applications must be assessed by trained immigration officers or judges. Children may choose to withdraw their applications at any time, and no changes to the law are needed. To the contrary, additional protections may be necessary to ensure that all children fleeing persecution, including children of Mexican citizenship, are properly considered. Rolling back minimal procedural protections is not a necessary or appropriate measure to address the current crisis.

In short, the current refugee crisis is a humanitarian situation that demands a humanitarian response. Tahirih urges the Senate Appropriations Committee to reject any proposals that would result in increased detention, inhumane treatment, due process violations, or the repatriation of children who face persecution.

NOTE: This post is a modified version of Tahirih’s Review of the President’s Emergency Supplemental Request for Unaccompanied Children and Related Matters, submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 15, 2014. Our full review can be found here.

Photo Credit: Evdoha | 123RF Stock Photo