As original published in Roll Call, July 30, 2014 at 5 a.m.
A family in Guatemala City received a knock on the door. Standing there were several gang members with one demand. “We’ve come to take your daughter,” they said, according to one of our local Church World Service partners. “Our boss wants her.” It was an emergency and the family had to act quickly.
The young teenage girl had no choice but to leave the country the next day, for her own protection. In the words of a local pastor who helped them, “Her sin was simply being pretty.”
In El Salvador, Josefina knew a girl from her community who had become the “girlfriend” of a gang member and had been forced to have sex with all the members of the gang. Once the gang started harassing her, she stopped going to school and stayed locked in her home until her family was able to make arrangements for her to travel to the U.S.
Some girls aren’t so lucky. When a girl — for the sake of privacy I’ll call her “Leticia”— was raped by more than a dozen gang members in Honduras, her family reported the crime to the police. The family immediately began receiving death threats. Then a local charity attempted to relocate Leticia to a women’s shelter, but the shelter refused to take her in for fear it would not be able to protect Leticia or the other women from this gang’s reign of terror. Honduras has only three women’s shelters and the police use two of them as their own personal brothels. In the end, to protect Leticia from further harm, she had to leave Honduras. Honduras has experienced a 346 percent increase in the murder rate of women and girls.
Legislative proposals to roll back the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — a bill that passed with unanimous, bipartisan consent in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 — ignore the stories of these girls, the unthinkable violence that these children are fleeing, and the fact that they are by no means just escaping to the United States. Asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are going wherever they can. Since 2008,there has been a more than 700 percent increase in people from these three countries in particular seeking asylum in Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.
True, smugglers are lying to parents and telling them their children will be able to stay in the United States. Governments need to work to stop smugglers who are exploiting people in desperate situations. But it is also clear that children do not come to the United States on a whim. The very fact that parents are making heart-breaking decisions to send away vulnerable children shows just how desperate their situation is. They cannot risk keeping their children at home. An uncertain and potentially dangerous journey is the safer solution.
Our country has an obligation — moral and legal — to provide protection to these children, and to not deport them back to gangs and unspeakable violence. The 2008 trafficking law exists for this very purpose. But right now, Congress is trying to rollback important protections in this law to “deport these children more quickly.” One piece of legislation, the ill-labeled “HUMANE” Act sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, rips out protections specifically for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the very children who need these protections as they flee these countries with the highest rate of violence in the region. This is not the answer. And this cannot be the American response. It is unconscionable that Congress would roll back a law because more children are in need of its protection.
Instead, we need to provide these children the protection, care, counseling and legal assistance they need to apply for asylum and protection. And we need to work with these countries to dramatically improve the rule of law,create witness protection programs, secure women’s shelters and build a strong infrastructure for child welfare. Some of the provisions in the Senate’s supplemental appropriations bill get to these very issues, but most of the proposals by the House Working Group and the deluge of bills to roll back legal protections for children are precisely the wrong answer to this complex crisis.
In the coming days, every member of Congress will need to answer this question: If a politician held the life of your child in their hands, what would you have them do?
Jen Smyers serves as the associate director for Immigration and Refugee Policy with Church World Service.