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July 17, 2014

U.S. Family Crisis at the Border Media Telebriefing

Below is a shortened transcript of the July 16 media telebriefing featuring former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) under George W. Bush Jim Ziglar; Leslie Vélez, senior protection officer at the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Cory Smith, policy counsel at the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking; and Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection at Human Rights First.

Eleanor Acer:           

This is Eleanor Acer from Human Rights First, my apologies. We are pleased to host this conference call today and to work with our diverse panel of partners who have come together to discuss the increase in families and children crossing the US-Mexico border and seeking this country’s protection. The president’s emergency supplemental request to Congress and its broad strategy falls short in a number of key ways that could undermine the integrity of the US asylum system and put unaccompanied children in danger. A number of congressional proposals also raised concerns about returning children to harm. In reports issued last month, Human Rights First had documented a number of the challenges and made recommendations for families and asylum seekers based on our first-hand visits to border areas including the Rio Grande Valley. The challenges at the border areas are part of a broader human right crisis in the region. The President and Congress should respond to the increase in children and families at the US-Mexico border in ways that strengthen the integrity of the immigration and asylum systems in this country, reflect American ideals, and uphold our country’s obligation to protect those fleeing persecution, trafficking, torture, and other serious human right violations. In terms of the president’s emergency supplemental request, funds are urgently needed of course to care for the children without diverting funds from other critical programs.

I’d like to flag though a few of the areas where the request falls short. First, the resources request for the immigration courts and for legal counsel for children are nowhere near what they should be. Many of our program’s pro bono clients, adults and children, wait many years for their immigration courts hearings. The administration has not requested enough judges to conduct all hearings across the country in a timely manner. Redirecting resources towards those recently apprehended at the border will exacerbate delays in the rest of the system. We should increase access to legal information presentations at the counsel and reduce the delays in the immigration court system nationwide through increased appropriations. While these cases should move ahead in a timely manner instead of being delayed for years, they should not be rushed through the system in an effort to send a message. The president’s request also asked for over $800 million in funds for the detention of families with children and other tools. Rather than further ratcheting up immigration detention, the US government should be looking to more humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention. Detention is expensive and it leaves families vulnerable to poor conditions and mistreatment. Asylum seekers also should not be held in immigration detention in an attempt to deter others from seeking this country’s protection. That kind of approach is not consistent with international law and research has also shown that it is not effective in stopping people who are fleeing for their lives.

Alternatives to detention are not just cheaper, but they’re also successful. The government’s current contract for detention alternatives has resulted in a 97% compliance rate to final immigration court hearings. We should maximize the use of alternative to detention for cases that warrant it particularly for families with children. There are strong models run by a number of faith-based groups that could be built upon.

Human Rights First is happy that the appropriations request does not include changes to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act that would weaken safeguards for unaccompanied children and urges the administration and Congress to maintain these and other safeguards to prevent the return of children to trafficking, persecution, and other serious human rights violations. There are also a number of legislative proposals that seek to change the Trafficking Victims Protection law and would potentially begin measures that protect children from being returned to trafficking, persecution and other harms. Our speakers will also touch on why this is so important to maintain these protections. We’re very lucky today to have a distinguished and diverse group of experts to speak with us. Our first speaker will be Jim Ziglar, Former Commissioner of the INS, the Immigration Naturalization Service and a board member of Human Rights First. He will be followed by Leslie Vélez, Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; and then by Cory Smith, a policy counsel at the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. I will open the floor first to Mr. Ziglar.

Jim Ziglar:                

Well, thank you, Eleanor. I’d like to make just several points before we turn to the questions. First, at the heart of this current situation is the simple fact that people from the Northern Triangle of Central America are fleeing violence and persecution, and in particular, what we’re seeing is that they’re trying to get their children to safety. By almost any definition that I know of, these people are refugees regardless of any other push or pull factor that might be sited. I also would note how quickly we seem to forget other situations such as we had in Colombia in years past where there were similar circumstances.

Secondly, the US holds itself out as a model for protecting refugees and we lecture a lot of people on this, and our laws and our values are supposed to be consistent with that model by providing processes and safeguards to identify those who are at risk, particularly children. On this principle, there has long been bipartisan agreement as there should be. The idea that we would diminish at this point these safeguards and values in face of the current circumstances really doesn’t speak very well of our leaders or our true values. I would like to point out that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has done a lot of really good work in this area, has determined that in many cases where so-called “expedited removal” are involved, border officials do not follow the procedures for determining whether there is a true asylum to claim. I ask then how many people with credible fear had been returned to face persecution or even death? 

Third, detaining children and asylum seekers for long periods is simply not consistent with American values and is very expensive. As Eleanor just pointed out, alternatives to detention are proven to be effective and much less expensive.

Fourth, let me give you some thoughts on what some of the responses to this situation should be certainly from my point of view. Number one, we must stay true to our values and to the laws we have put in place in a bipartisan basis. Number two, we should provide adequate resources for our protection and adjudication services so that we have a true due process system, something that Eleanor pointed out. Number three, we should recognize that detention of refugee children and families and asylum seekers is inconsistent with our values and is expensive and unnecessary generally. Alternatives actually do work. Number four, let’s aggressively go after the smugglers, the human traffickers, and the drug cartels. In my personal view, they are terrorists of the worst sort. Number five, let’s pivot toward the Americas and make a real commitment to helping our neighbors build a safe and prosperous future for themselves and their children so that we don’t continue to have this kind of problem in the US. Number six, Congress needs to get on with the task of fixing a long, dysfunctional immigration system. That’s going to require maturity and bipartisanship, something that seems to be badly lacking at the moment. With that, Eleanor, thank you and I turn it back to you.

Eleanor Acer: 

Thank you very much, Jim. Our next panelist is Leslie Vélez, Senior Protection Officer at UNHCR. Leslie?

Leslie Vélez:              

Thank you, Eleanor, and thanks for having us on this call. My role here is to explain – let me just be very short. We’re going to explain who we are and why the UN Refugee Agency is involved, what we learned from our own assessment, and to touch upon solutions. So I’m going to start with the main headline which is the narrative of migration in the Americas region has changed. UNHCR is currently helping nearly 12 million refugees around the world and supporting the countries hosting them. When there’s evidence of forced displacement, UNHCR will assess the situation and that’s actually exactly what we did here.

So let me share how we saw the situation from our perspective. Between the years of 2008 and 2013, we registered a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications lodged by individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to areas other than the United States, to countries other than the United States and these include Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and in particular, Nicaragua. I will note that last year alone, Nicaragua received a 238% increase in the number of asylum applications from individuals from three countries in just one year. The evidence of internal displacement particularly in Honduras; it was incredibly compelling and as it was escalating, homes are vacated as are neighborhoods. It’s been well-documented that the patterns of movements of individuals have changed given the insecurity in the region. For example, our UN sister agency, the UN Development Programme, did a very comprehensive study on the impact of citizen insecurity in Latin American and in these three countries we’re able to capture a lot of data on how individuals no longer went out at night, how they moved to different and safer neighborhoods, really tracking and evidencing the internal displacement caused by increasing violence and insecurity in the region. Our sister agency, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime not only documented the increased violence noting that Honduras is the murder capital of the world, but they also documented the increasing levels of crime and the reasons behind it for human smuggling including the trafficking of different things such as drugs, arms, money, and organs. So the level of crime is really increasing in the context of what is well known to already be a pattern of entrenched poverty. So within this context, we were tracking the numbers from UNHCR’s US office to note that since 2011, the number of unaccompanied children on US soil was doubling each year. At the end of 2013, we agreed to work with the United States government to interview the children on US soil to identify the reasons why they were leaving their homes and why they were coming to the United States now. So that’s what we do in all situations and we did it here and this is what we learned. We learned that the children are leaving Central America for many reasons including violence. Specifically, we found that 58% of the random children that we selected were presenting with high levels of international protection concerns. Some of them it was quite clear, some of them are potential, but the idea was not to determine whether or not they actually are refugees but it was to understand whether or not there are concerns here to inform policymakers as well as ourselves on what the appropriate response ought to be.

Since the time of our research, the flow has gotten larger, the children are younger, and there are a lot more girls and we are concerned that the lives of those children could be at risk if they’re returned. So, for example, one girl shared her story of watching her classmate and best friend not only sexually violated but then killed and dismembered and had her body parts spread along the way to school as a sign to the young girls that the gangs are not making empty threats when they’re trying to make them their girlfriends. This is the kind of context – to hear these stories multiplied so many times, it was the magnitude of the violence that really grabbed our attention.

It is a mixed flow so within this context, what we want in this situation is we would ask anyone anywhere for the victims of harm to have the chance to explain why they fled and the opportunity to seek asylum if they fear for their safety once at home. It is a regional problem that’s requiring regional solutions. So the first one of course is that the best thing to do is to improve the country conditions from which individuals are finding that the only safety is to cross international borders. There’s also the humanitarian response outside of the United States before individuals make it to the United States, as well as the domestic response. So the children who do fear serious harm in their home countries need that chance to tell their story and it’s only then that US officials who review them can decide which children need refugee protection and which ones can be safely returned home in a humane way. The US is a global leader in alleviating human suffering around the world and we support its efforts to mount an appropriate humanitarian response to the influx of children arriving at its own borders. Thank you very much.         

Eleanor Acer:

Thank you, Leslie. Our final speaker is Cory Smith. Cory is a policy counsel at the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. Cory, thank you so much for being with us here today.                              

Cory Smith:   

Thank you, Eleanor, and thanks to everyone for taking time to participate. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking is a US-based coalition that advocates for solutions to prevent and end all forms of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. I’m here today to talk about the most vulnerable population in the current unaccompanied immigrant children crisis. These are child victims of human trafficking. Given the horrific abuse and trauma that these children face, we want to stress the need for specialized screening for child victims of human trafficking. As has been discussed already, the 2008 bipartisan reauthorization or the TVPRA which was passed unanimously required screening of these children by asking questions to assess if they had been victims of trafficking. It also required that the children from non-contiguous countries have the opportunity to present their case before an immigration judge and not be automatically returned within 72 hours of arriving. So I want to really make the point that it does not provide any additional immigration benefits. It only provides time and space and process which is essential to determine if these children are victims of trafficking.   

I want to give a couple of case examples from service providers that are both members of ATEST and also a partner organization. These are actual child trafficking victims that were part of the unaccompanied immigrant children crisis. I’ll also talk about if these proposed changes to the TVPRA are made how they would impact their current case. One is a girl named Sarah. Sarah was living with women after her mother left to work in the United States. When she was 15 years old, Sarah was kidnapped by a group of men. She was sexually abused. She was forced to have sex with other men. They received payment and sold her for sex and sex slavery. This abuse went on for two years. At 17, fortunately she was able to escape. She made her way to the United States. She was captured on the border. Once she was in detention, she was able to speak to a social worker who identified her as a trafficking victim. This occurred after about two months. With the proposed changes that some members of Congress and the administration have been seeking, she would have been summarily deported in one to three days. There would not have been the time to identify her as a victim. She would not have been identified because there would be no procedural protections in place and so I think it’s really important to realize that these children who are victims, identified victims of sex trafficking will be sent back. Not only that, but they could be sent back to the arms of their trafficker, to their country of origin because of concerns about the repatriation process as well.

The other case I want to mention briefly is a boy named Hugo. Hugo was a Guatemalan teenager. He entered the US without documents in Texas in 2013. Hugo had embarked on a two-week journey to the US from Guatemala with his teenage cousin and other Guatemalan migrants. They had hired a coyote to bring them on their trip. During the journey, the coyote informed them that he had actually sold them to another man. They were turned over to this man and had labor trafficking. They were forced to do labor on a farm for 12 to 14 hours a day, with little food and little water, incommunicado. They were told that if they talked about what happened or tried to escape, great harm would come to them and their families. Fortunately, Hugo escaped. Hugo made it into the United States, in Texas. He was picked up by immigration authorities where he was subsequently transferred to Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. That is a requirement under the current law that requires transfer within 72 hours. There, he was identified a victim of trafficking. He is currently living in Florida with his father, going to school. He has legal representation from an NGO, a legal service provider, and they have filed an application for a T visa which provides immigration status to victims of trafficking.

If sections of the TVPRA are rolled back, children like Hugo would’ve never been identified as a victim. He would have been summarily deported with no process, and keep in mind, he wasn’t identified as a victim of human trafficking by DHS. He was identified by HHS. It was only after his transfer to that custody that he was identified. So again, I just want to reiterate that we strongly as ATEST oppose any attempt to weaken or eliminate the procedural protections provided for in the 2000 trafficking bill. These protections simply provide time, space, and process. They provide access to trained service providers and an opportunity to be heard. They do not provide any path to legalization or any other immigration benefit. They simply give children that are victims of trafficking or potentially trafficking victims a chance to ask for help and a chance to receive help.                 

Eleanor Acer:

Great. So thank you, all, so much for joining us here today and I want to really thank our speakers. Leslie, I want to thank you for giving us really the regional perspective and putting the challenges at the US border in perspective really given the large numbers that face other countries, the numbers that the US is seeing on its southern border is certainly nothing that the United States of America cannot handle.

Cory, thank you so much for talking about the importance of protection for victims of trafficking and for children who are among the most vulnerable and at risk of being returned back into the hands of traffickers.

Jim, really, thank you for reminding us and sharing with us the importance of this country’s longstanding bipartisan commitment to protecting those who are fleeing for their lives, fleeing violence and persecution. Thank you so much. 

END