Blog: Short-term Strategies for Assisting Migrant Children on Our Border and the Central American Countries They’re Fleeing

By Carolyn Burstien
November 07, 2014

NETWORK believes there are several short-term, low-cost strategies that Congress can take immediately to alleviate the humanitarian problem of migrant children from the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries on our southern border. Two key strategies are to stop certain programs that have exacerbated the situation.

The first is outlined in a paper by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Jesuit Conference. It was provided at a human rights hearing in late October 2014 and highlights how the U.S. supports and assists Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala by training, equipping and funding their law enforcement and military units. These are the units that are instrumental in confining and deporting people, often children and asylum-seekers, who should be protected and whose rights are being abrogated.

The Inter-American Court for Human Rights has frequently emphasized that migratory policies should guarantee refugees’ rights to humane treatment, personal liberty, due process and effective judicial remedies, none of which are being respected – especially those of potential asylees, according to numerous civil society organizations in these countries. Instead, the U.S. praises and supports these governments that are indirectly assisting the U.S. in restricting these migrants from entering its territory.

The WOLA and Jesuit Conference document outlines in detail the equipment, training and capacity-building that the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law enforcement (INL), the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other U.S. migration control and law enforcement entities have provided to law enforcement and special forces’ units of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. While the enhanced assistance is purportedly for drug interdiction and human trafficking, these units routinely intercept people fleeing to escape targeted violence, persecution and torture and force them back to situations from which they are attempting to escape without any of the safeguards for humanitarian protection.

According to the WOLA and Jesuit Conference report, Mexico is routinely deporting children and families who would merit international protection. The report took them to task for not adopting a comprehensive public policy on asylum geared to preventing and punishing the acts of violence and discrimination to which migrants in Mexico are subjected. Even Counselor of the Department of State, Ambassador Thomas Shannon affirmed in his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 10 that one of the key purposes of the Mexican policy is to repatriate Central Americans before they reach the U.S. border.

The situation along the Honduran-Guatemala border is fraught with the same peril as that along the Guatemalan-Mexico border because the strategic priority is to “stem-the-flow” of migrants without any concern for the implications of cutting off access to asylum for those displaced by violence, organized crime or the unwillingness of the government to address the needs of those targeted for abuse and persecution.

In Mexico, even routine screenings to determine if individuals have well-founded fears of persecution or violence against them are not part of the intake process when Central American children and adults are interdicted by Mexican migration authorities. Yet, when civil society organizations, researchers and religious groups working in non-profits in these countries have interviewed returned migrants, they have discovered that many of those interviewed left their countries due to credible claims for international protection.

It is exceedingly important that Congress investigate our policies of assistance and support to Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran law enforcement and military forces to determine if the U.S. is contributing to the interception, detention and deportation of Central American migrants who should be screened for asylum and international protection, thus depriving them of their human rights. The Inter-American Human Rights System has made clear that no people, especially no children, should have their access restricted to territories where they might receive asylum. Clear prohibitions must be placed on funds for the aforesaid purposes. And such an investigation, while not wholly cost-free, would be relatively low-cost. This is the first strategy supported by NETWORK that requires the U.S. to end its military assistance to these countries if a congressional investigation concludes that asylees’ potential rights are being ignored.

A second related policy that could and should be implemented in the short-term and that meets the criterion of low-cost is closing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas). The Institute, funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars, used the facility to train Latin American dictators and their militaries in various terrorist techniques, including varying levels of intimidation and torture methods. Even after President Clinton revamped the school and changed its curriculum in the 1990s to be certain that human rights and democracy were central to all studies, it remains a highly controversial program.

The question remains whether the more rigorous human rights training program at the Institute is actually taught or only given lip-service. The school has been criticized for years after its reorganization due to human rights abuses performed by its former students. Just two of many instances of human rights abuses include the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in which a UN panel concluded that 19 of the 27 killers in November 1989 were graduates of the school. In 2009, a coup in Honduras against the democratically-elected president was also carried out by graduates of the school.

A third strategy NETWORK supports during this current lame-duck Congress, is to review carefully and comprehensively the reform plans developed by the Central American countries of the Northern Triangle. Congress should ensure that the countries’ strategies reflect clear priorities, such as improved healthcare systems, and how these priorities are to be funded. Most importantly, all groups in society, including wealthy landowners and business people, must agree to pay their share of taxes to help finance the reform efforts undertaken by these countries. The plans cannot rest upon the assumption that the U.S. or other outside sources will pay the full freight.

In a September 26 paper, WOLA developed 12 excellent principles for assessing the plans of these countries. They include that these “governments must show institutional commitment to full implementation” and a “focus on institutional reforms that will improve the daily life” of their citizens, as well as several others worthy of consideration. One of their cautions is very sensible – to “avoid any plan that is too narrowly targeted on only one element of the problem.” Our friends in these countries have emphasized the significance of this latter element.

Another short-term, low-cost strategy supported by NETWORK during this lame-duck session of Congress relates to proper care for unaccompanied children from the Central American Northern Triangle countries once they have been transferred from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)/Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after 72 hours. While being held in the “least restrictive setting,” the children will require protection, appropriate medical assistance, and all-round care for their well-being until their transfer to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative or individual designated by the parent or, alternatively, to a foster parent who has been carefully vetted. Such care will require additional funding for HHS due to the influx of these children at our southern borders.

In addition, highlighted by numerous witnesses, delays in transport or a lack of immigration detention capacity has led to children being held for much longer than 72 hours by the Border Patrol before transfer to ORR/DCS. We strongly believe this is unacceptable and contravenes the directives of the Inter-American Court for Human rights regarding children’s and juveniles’ rights, not to speak of their basic dignity as human beings.

It should be noted that currently the child migrant crisis has dropped out of most news reports, even as the children themselves have moved into the less visible venues of the nation’s immigration courts. The American Immigration Council (AIC) announced on October 14 that more than 85% of the 10,041 minors whose cases were begun between July 18 and the end of September showed up in court for their first hearing before a judge. AIC pointed out that an even higher percentage would appear if they could be assured that an attorney would assist them.

Yet issues relating to the child migrant crisis are far from over. The above-described short-term, low-cost strategies can begin to deal with the problems and there are long-term, higher-cost policies that are needed that must await the 114th Congress. This blog is the first of two that will focus on this issue.

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