US News & World: U.S. Law Is Putting Children at Risk

Washington, July 23, 2014

U.S. Law Is Putting Children at Risk

A 2008 law for trafficking victims needs an update.


Time to change the process for unaccompanied children who come into the U.S.

By Henry Cuellar

July 23, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. EDT+ More

Over the past two months, I have toured the Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and the Department of Health and Human Services facility at Lackland Air Force Base where immigrant children without legal status are being processed. As a father myself, the sight of hundreds of children scared and far away from home was a moving experience. More than a third of the young girls who arrive in our country aided by dangerous criminal networks have been victimized during their more than 1,000-mile journey. That is why we need to find a bipartisan legislative solution to amend the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 to ensure that unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America are treated humanely, while preserving the security of our borders. 

In June, more than 47,000 immigrants without legal status were apprehended at the border, and more than 9,700 of these were unaccompanied children. It is clear to me after extensive conversations with the men and women who protect our southern border that a legislative fix is necessary. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act is a strong piece of legislation that provides for the timely and safe return of unaccompanied children from contiguous countries (Canada and Mexico) to their native lands after a thorough screening that confirms they won’t fall victim to human traffickers or face other abuse. This expeditious process has reduced the burden on our border resources and more quickly reunited families.

However, the government currently follows a different procedure to handle children from countries other than Canada and Mexico: It takes custody of them until they can be placed with a U.S.-based family member or in a foster home. After this step, each child is directed to report to immigration court to begin a legal review of his or her case. An actual hearing is generally held about two years after the notice to appear is issued.

This procedure has had some unintended consequences. Smuggling organizations are using the fact that children are being allowed to remain in the U.S. as a recruiting tool to convince families to send their kids on this very dangerous journey. There are numerous reports of youngsters being assaulted, sexually abused and even killed along the way. The message being received by Central Americans is, “If you can make it there, you get to stay.”

A proposed amendment to Section 235 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act would allow for the timely and safe removal of all children in the same manner that has governed those from Mexico and Canada. The same safeguards would be applied to ensure, for example, that children are not, and will not be, victims of trafficking if they return to their native countries. This legislative fix is not the final step in addressing the influx of immigrants, but it is an important one.

The U.S. must also help international partners to secure their borders. The House Committee on Appropriations, of which I am a member, has taken initial steps to provide resources to Mexico to secure its border with Guatemala, where many refugees are coming from.

The U.S. will continue to be a beacon of hope for immigrants from all over the world, but the current system is inviting families to take dangerous risks with their minor children and putting tremendous stress on our already limited border resources. I strongly urge my colleagues and the White House to support my commonsense legislative proposal to address this humanitarian and national security crisis at our border.