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UUSC Report Reveals Senate Bill Would Place Kids at Risk

The shutdown "compromise" bill threatens the lives of thousands of refugee children fleeing Central America.

By on January 24, 2019

In recent days, Donald Trump and Senate Majority leaders proposed extreme changes to U.S. law that would slash human rights protections for many asylum-seekers and immigrants. They have sought to portray these measures as a fair “compromise” to end the government shutdown, or as Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell put it yesterday: “It’s hard to think of a good reason to oppose this [bill].”

In reality, there are many good reasons to oppose the bill. One of the most urgent is that it directly threatens the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of refugee children fleeing Central America.

Buried at the end of the Senate’s 1300-page proposal is a section cruelly misnamed the “Central American Minors Protection Act.” This section would make the vast majority of Central American refugee children categorically ineligible for asylum in the U.S. It would require them to apply for asylum through a heavily restricted new mechanism in their home countries. This is not a viable option.

A UUSC report from 2016 sheds light on the extreme dangers of such a proposal. In collaboration with partners in El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States, UUSC conducted extensive research on an earlier in-country refugee processing program: the Central American Minors (CAM) program, created by the Obama administration.

Our interviews showed that in-country processing can never be a safe alternative for all asylum-seekers, and cannot replace the traditional path of crossing the U.S. border and seeking protection. As the report noted:

In-country processing programs can create new dangers for people seeking refuge, their families, and their loved ones by asking them to announce their intentions to flee and their reasons for doing so to government officers, while at the same time returning them to the very people who wish to prevent them from escaping. […]

Because the [CAM] program lacks safeguards for the children as they wait for their applications to process, and because gangs often specifically target children who are known to be attempting to flee, CAM beneficiaries themselves are unable to share information about the program with their peers. […] As one father explained, ‘[…] It was one of the first things I ask them to do, to keep it as much of a secret as possible because there could be the possibility that they extort us if they found out we were trying to leave the country…” […]

The report highlighted the deadly peril facing child refugees waiting in their home countries during long application processes:

Many live in constant fear and rarely or never leave the house due to proximate violence. Applicants have been beaten by gang members. One [Refugee Agency (RA)] reported that a client was struck by a bus while fleeing gang members. Another RA reported that a young woman applicant was mugged on her way to her interviews and was denied entry because her documentation was stolen. At least two applicants have been killed in the midst of their CAM applications, waiting for the “safe and legal” alternative to asylum seeking.

UUSC’s report did demonstrate that CAM was a life-saving program for some families, suggesting that an in-country option can have a role to play in a larger good faith response to the Central American refugee crisis. Our report offers guidance for how such a program should be structured. But it can never replace the need for traditional asylum-seeking.

One of our central concerns about the CAM program in 2016 was that the Obama administration might use it to justify harsh and restrictive policies against asylum seekers who crossed the border. The Senate bill’s proposals confirm the worst of these fears.

The malice of these legislative proposals is staggering. By targeting asylum-seeking children for special – potentially deadly – new restrictions and barriers to refuge, the Trump administration and Senate leadership are plumbing the depths of moral depravity.

The U.S. public must make clear that these extreme measures have no place in a fair or even-handed agreement to end the partial government shutdown. Bargaining with the lives of children is beyond the pale. Congress must reject the “End the Shutdown and Secure the Border Act,” and any new CAM proposals that restrict the right to seek asylum.

Photo Credit: iStock – VisualCommunications

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