Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, On Unaccompanied Minors and the Growing Humanitarian Crisis at the Southern Border

Over the years, I have frequently spoken on the Senate Floor about refugees, and have asked my fellow Senators to support our humanitarian and refugee efforts in far flung corners of the world.  In doing so, I cite America’s role as a human rights leader and our long history of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution and violence.  We must also acknowledge, however, that our relative geographic isolation means those commitments have rarely been put to the test at home.  No more. Today, the refugee crisis has come to our own border.

This is a complicated problem and we must resist the urge to let politics shape our response. Although critics of this administration argue that the increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the southwest border is driven by recent changes in our immigration policy, the facts tell a different and more complicated story. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has found that over 50 percent of the children ages 12 to 17 arriving from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been forcibly displaced and have claims to international protection because of the violence they have encountered.  These children, who are the victims of extreme gang violence, rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking are not just coming to the United States.  Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize have seen a 712 percent increase in asylum applications from Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans since 2008.

If changes in our immigration policy were the primary factor, we would expect to see an across-the-board increase in children arriving from Mexico and Central America. Instead, the current spike is driven entirely by children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.  The number of children apprehended from Mexico has not changed and very few are coming from other Central American countries.  For example, while nearly 15,000 unaccompanied children have arrived from Honduras this year, only 164 children have arrived from Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  None have come from Panama, and only 3 from Costa Rica and 12 from Belize.

What Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have in common is widespread corruption and weak governments that have failed to implement effective social and economic programs or to protect their most vulnerable citizens from record levels of violence. This reality, more than any change in U.S. policy, is responsible for the massive increase in unaccompanied minors arriving on our southwest border.

It is also true, however, that many of these children do not have claims to immigration relief and will be returned.  For them, the dangers of this trip are not worth it and we must discourage them from making the arduous journey alone.

There is no doubt that maintaining the status quo is not an option.  That is why we need to take up and pass the administration’s emergency supplemental request without delay. The additional funds included in that request will help address the root causes of this crisis, increase the efficiency of our immigration courts and provide urgently needed shelter and care for these vulnerable children.  

But instead of supporting the supplemental, Republicans are trying to use the crisis to promote fear and their enforcement-only agenda. It has not worked in the past, and it will not work now.  As we know from the experience of other countries facing far greater refugee crises, increased detention and other messages of deterrence do not persuade desperate people from taking dangerous journeys.

I have heard Americans raise the question: what kind of mother would send their child alone on a perilous journey to the United States?  My response is simple. The kind of mother who knows in her heart that she would rather risk her child making the treacherous journey to America than to be find her shot in the head on her own porch; the kind of mother who prefers the consequence of immigration detention for her surviving daughter over the fate of many young girls who are raped and killed, even at the tender age of 8-years-old. I pray that no American will ever know the pain and suffering of this Hobson’s choice. 

Some Members of Congress are proposing that the way to solve this problem is by amending the Trafficking Victims of Protection Act to make it easier to deport these children by rushing them through a superficial hearing without access to counsel or child welfare specialists. That is unacceptable. We are talking about young children – six, seven, eight years old – who have experienced horrific violence and do not speak English.  It is unconscionable to push them through our complicated legal system, terrified, alone, without a lawyer, only to be summarily deported back into the very danger they fled.  I will do everything I can to prevent such a travesty. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is not a windfall for these children. It simply provides commonsense protections, like requiring that children who arrive here alone be interviewed by a child welfare specialist and have a meaningful opportunity to tell their story to a judge. That screening is how we identify victims of trafficking, sexual violence and persecution.  It is the same kind of victim-center approach we know works from experience in our own criminal justice system. Our border patrol agents are simply not equipped to do this sensitive screening, which is what children from contiguous countries currently receive. If improving the efficiency of the process is the goal, the administration already has the discretion to do that and the funding for immigration judges and legal assistance in this supplemental will further help. We can address this humanitarian crisis without watering down our law.

This problem we are facing now could be alleviated, in part, if the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would allow a vote on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744.  Politicians in Washington argue that we need to secure our Nation’s border. The Senate-passed bill does that by calling for nearly 20,000 new Border Patrol agents; 3,500 additional Customs and Border Protection officers; and 700 miles of fencing.  Politicians also argue that we need tougher laws to fight back against coyotes and cartels who opportunistically exploit these vulnerable children.  S.744 does that too, with tougher provisions to fight against human smuggling and enhanced penalties in situations that result in serious bodily injury, death, bribery, or corruption.

I want to thank Senators Harkin, Feinstein, and Durbin for their comments at last week’s Appropriations Committee hearing.  It is clear to me that they, too, understand that our Nation is at a crossroads with this crisis. The world’s eyes are watching to see how we respond.  Pope Francis has just urged us to welcome and protect these children. He is right. We have a choice. We can either make good on the promises enshrined in our laws or we can decide that it’s just too complicated and rewrite the law. If we do that, if we chose to send these children back into harms’ way, we are turning our back on the very principles on which this nation was founded.

I agree with the administration that a supplemental request is necessary to respond to this refugee crisis.  It should not be a political football. It should be passed clean and without delay and not be amended with authorizing language to lower protections for victims of human trafficking.

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