McAllen Monitor Op-Ed on Humane Act

Washington, July 27, 2014

More than once over the past two months, I have visited the McAllen Border Patrol facility and the HHS facility at Lackland AFB where undocumented immigrant children are being processed. As a family man and father, the sight of hundreds of children alone, scared and far from home is a powerful and moving experience. Visiting with some of the children, such as Emilia, 9, from Honduras and Miguel, 14, from El Salvador and hearing their stories left a deep impression.

Congress needs to take immediate action to address this humanitarian crisis that also has homeland security implications. The men and women of the Border Patrol are doing the best they can to address the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Since October 2013, 42,000 of the 58,000 unaccompanied children have crossed through a 200-mile strip of the Rio Grande Valley. When an influx like this occurs, it is time to take action.

We cannot continue playing defense on the 1-yard line — the U.S./Mexico border region where we live. It has become clear to me through extensive conversations with border agents that a legislative fix is necessary, along with the appropriate funding.

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 is a very strong piece of legislation that protects victims of trafficking and helps prevent trafficking. This law has provided immigration relief for victims of trafficking and other crimes and their families by establishing T-Visas and U-Visas.

However, criminal smuggling organizations have found a loophole in the law that allows them to victimize the very people the law was meant to protect. Section 235 of the law allows for the voluntary, timely and safe removal of unaccompanied children from contiguous countries (Canada and Mexico) back to their home country after a thorough screening. This provides for a more expeditious process that reduces the burden on our border resources and more quickly reunites families.

An amendment to Section 235 of the TVPRA of 2008 would allow for the timely and safe removal of unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries, as it allows for the timely and safe removal of them from contiguous countries. This process would maintain all the safeguards built in to the 2008 law relating to screening to ensure the child has not and will not be a victim of trafficking, have a credible fear of returning to their country and are able to make an independent decision to withdraw their application and return to their country. All due process would be maintained for the children.

In recent days, top Democrats have expressed public support for changing the 2008 law. This is a change I have advocated for many months and suggested in the bipartisan legislation I filed this month, the Humane Act, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Hillary Clinton last week stated she would be open to changing the 2008 law to help the administration deal with the influx of child migrants crossing the border illegally. She said that we need resources to be deployed quickly but added there needs to be flexibility under the law.

In a June 30 letter to congressional leaders, President Barack Obama called for providing the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Johnson has also reiterated that the administration is seeking changes to the 2008 human trafficking law to ease the processing of some child immigrants. He said that changes are needed to more quickly process immigrant children who do not have a claim for asylum or other humanitarian aid.

The bipartisan legislation I introduced with Sen. Cornyn I feel addresses the humanitarian crisis at the border. The Humane Act would amend the 2008 law to treat all unaccompanied minors equally under the law. It provides for a fair and timely hearing before an immigration judge for minors who request it. And it provides resources for Texas humanitarian relief, border security and ports of entry and provides assistance to Central American countries. These countries have to take responsibility for stopping their young people from taking these dangerous journeys.

I am a firm believer in the strength of the legislative process, including debate, discussion and compromise. I welcome input and suggestions.

With one week left until we return to the district for the August District Work Period, the clock is ticking to take action. It would be a negative message for lawmakers to return home and leave this crisis unresolved. The American people want to see a secure Southern border and they want to see their lawmakers working together. I call on the Congressional Leadership in both the House and Senate to keep us here in Washington until we find a solution.

I always remember the words of President John F. Kennedy. When confronted by a crisis, Kennedy used to say that he was not looking for the Democratic or the Republic answer, but rather the right one.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, represents Texas’ 28 District, which includes Laredo and Mission.