Whenever possible, policies and procedures should be implemented that help the child progress through the system in a way that takes into account his/her vulnerabilities and age, such as the establishment of immigration court dockets for unaccompanied children and the creation of child-appropriate asylum procedures. Concentrating all UAC cases in a child-focused immigration docket with appropriately-trained arbiters and advocates will streamline UAC cases while also ensuring a less-threatening model for children.
Additionally, implementing a uniform binding standard that requires all immigration judges, federal judges, and members of the BIA to adopt a child-sensitive approach to asylum cases of child applicants will lead to greater consistency in youth asylum jurisprudence and will also be more reflective of current international and domestic legal requirements. As mentioned, the government should provide legal representation for unaccompanied children, who would be better able to navigate the legal process and obtain immigration relief with an attorney guiding and representing them.
4. Family reunification should be a central component of implementing the best interest of the child principle. The U.S. government should adopt a transnational family approach in deciding on durable solutions in the best interest of UAC. This should include family tracing, assessment of all family members for potential reunification, and involvement of all family members in the decision- making process, regardless of geography.
5. The Department of State should pilot Section 104 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA 08) in Mexico. Sec. 104 of the TVPRA 08 amends Sec. 107 (a) of the TVPA 2000 to require the “Secretary of State and the Administrator of the United States Agency for international development” to “establish and carry out initiatives in foreign countries”23 “in cooperation and coordination with relevant organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and private nongovernmental organizations…for--‘(i) increased protections for refugees and internally displaced persons, including outreach and education efforts to prevent such refugees and internally displaced persons from being exploited by traffickers; and ‘(ii) performance of best interest determinations for unaccompanied and separated children who come to the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, its partner organizations, or any organization that contracts with the Department of State in order to identify child trafficking victims and to assist their safe integration, reintegration, and resettlement.”
6. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should continue to expand placement options to include small community-based care arrangements with basic to therapeutic programming. The Flores Settlement Agreement establishes minimum standards of care for children in the custody of ORR and requires that UAC be placed in the least restrictive setting that meets their needs. Save the Children notes in a study: “...recent years have seen an increasing emphasis on the development of community-based approaches… to ensure that children who lose, or become separated from their own families, can have the benefits of normal family life within the community.”
Placing children in the least restrictive setting that can meet their needs is the policy and practice of the child welfare system in the United States. While many of the children in ORR custody are served in basic shelters, this placement setting may not be the most appropriate for some UAC, many of whom have complex trauma needs, and would be better served in foster care placements through the URM program.
7. Special attention should be given to Mayan youth. A significant number of youth migrating from Guatemala are Mayan fleeing domestic violence, organized crime and poverty. The United States is not adequately prepared to identify and assist these youth, as many are unable to understand English or Spanish and thus unable to articulate their fears. We encourage DHS to work with non-government organizations and Mayan leaders to identify and assist Mayan youth.
B. Mexico, with assistance from the United States and child welfare organizations, must build the capacity of the Mexican child welfare system to protect migrating youth. This includes training for direct care providers and government officials to employ child-appropriate techniques when interviewing and serving migrating children as well as the development of protocols related to identification of safe placement for children, including, but not limited to, those identified to be eligible for refugee status. The government, in partnership with child welfare experts should develop and incorporate standardized tools and methods to screen migrating children for symptoms of trauma and for human trafficking.
1. The Mexican government should establish a continuum of care for unaccompanied children in their custody. Currently, unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum may remain in shelters for as long as six months to years and children who receive asylum remain in shelter until they are 18. Studies have shown that prolonged stays in restrictive settings impact a child’s development and well-being. The higher the capacity of the care arrangement, the more restrictive the environment becomes. Consistent with child welfare best practice, unaccompanied children should be placed in the least-restrictive setting, ideally, in community-based care, such as foster care, which allows children freedom of movement and access to community. Furthermore, care settings should be constructed to ensure minors are not commingled with gangs or other criminals, who often infiltrate these facilities.
2. Best interest determinations (BIDS) should be conducted for children in custody in Mexico. Rather than immediately deport them back to Central America, Mexico should allow UNHCR to employ a BIDS system for unaccompanied and separated children in detention to ensure they are protected from criminal elements in Mexico and Central America. This would include the possibility of reuniting them with their families in the United States, particularly if they are victims of trafficking or asylum seekers.
3. The U.S. government should consider child asylum/refugee cases in Mexico for resettlement to the United States through embassy referrals. Cases of children with valid asylum or refugee claims, especially those with family in the United States, should be considered by the U.S. government for possible resettlement. In many cases, children are neither safe in Mexico nor the country of origin, and resettlement to the United States is their only option for a durable solution.
4. The current reliance on consular staff to investigate, handle, and treat children who are intercepted in Mexico during their migration is inadequate and leaves children vulnerable to coyotes, traffickers and further trauma and exploitation. Currently, in Tapachula, Mexico, the consular officials are responsible for identifying where apprehended unaccompanied children are from, interfacing with the other consulates, collecting information on children’s families, and making determinations about their return. The training they receive is on an ad hoc basis, sometimes led by local NGOs. These government officials are performing the work of child welfare experts and should receive adequate training and staff on site within the consulates to help consult on possible child trafficking, smuggling and exploitation cases.
C. With assistance from the U.S. government, Central American governments must employ systems to protect children so they are able to remain home in safety and with opportunity. The long-term solution to the crisis in Central America is to address the push factors driving minors north. This would include improvements in education, employment, and enforcement, for sure, but also improvements in the social service and child protection systems. We recommend the following:
1. The United States should invest in repatriation and re-integration in sending countries. USCCB found that source countries did not employ comprehensive re-integration programs for children returning from the United States and Mexico, programs which would provide follow-up services to children to help them readjust to life in their home country. A program operated by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) in Guatemala is showing promising results and should be expanded and duplicated.
2. The United States should invest in prevention programs in sending countries. Other than programs provided by Catholic Relief Services and other NGOs, source countries do not employ programs to encourage youth to remain and not take the journey north. Such a program would include skill-based training and employment services. Catholic Relief Services operates Youth Builders, a program previously mentioned in my testimony which has helped youth remain at home and live productive lives. Youth Builders offers promise for the benefits of such prevention programs: of the 53 children served by the Youth Builders program to date, 52 have not migrated north.
3. The United States should consider the implementation of in-country processing in sending countries. In order to prevent children with persecution claims from risking their lives along the migration journey, the United States should consider in-country processing in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This would also undercut the for-profit smuggling networks that are preying on children and families. It also would ensure that children who deserve protection receive it in safety. The United States has conducted successful in-country processing systems in such nations as the former Soviet Union and Haiti.
4. Anti-violence efforts should include stakeholders from government, civil society, private sector, churches and international donors in order to effectively leverage limited resources and should include job and educational opportunities and training programs. Anti-violence prevention measures should be tackled at regional and local community levels in addition to national levels. Including key local stakeholders and engaging regional governmental bodies and actors is a vital part of prevention efforts. Additionally, prevention efforts must include systematic training and educational programs in order to fully offer meaningful opportunities for gang members in society once they leave the gang.
5. Over the long-term, all governments of the region, including the United States, must invest resources into examining and effectively addressing root causes of migration in Central America and Mexico. This would address the lack of citizen security which is propelling individuals, especially children, to flee. The US and its regional partners must avoid the simplistic approach of addressing the forced migration by forcing children back through increased border enforcement. This response is akin to sending these children back into a burning building they just fled. Instead the approach must prioritize protection for those who are displaced from their homes, especially children, the most vulnerable.
The situation of child migration from Central America is a complex one, with no easy answers. It is clear, however, that more must be done to address the root causes of this flight and to protect children and youth in the process. Clearly this problem is not going away; in fact, it is getting more urgent in terms of the dire humanitarian consequences.
Too often, and especially recently in the media, these children are being looked at with distrust and as capable adult actors, instead of as vulnerable and frightened children who have been introduced to the injustice and horror of the world at an early age. Anyone who hears the stories of these children would be moved, as they are victims fleeing violence and terror, not perpetrators. USCCB found that these children long not only for security, but also for a sense of belonging—to a family, a community, and a country.
They are often unable to find this belonging in their home country and leave their homes as a last resort.
In conclusion, I ask you to consider the individual stories of these vulnerable child migrants and open your minds and hearts to their plight while seeking meaningful and long-term regional solutions. I ask you to respond to the needs of these children, not to turn them away or ostracize them, as Americans are a compassionate people.
Mr. Chairman, I again thank you for this opportunity to speak with you about these children of God and ask that you let me, my brother bishops, and the entire Catholic Church charitable network work with you to pursue just and humane solutions to the challenge of child migration.