Since Congress withheld funding for his border wall, President Trump has accused Democrats of allowing smugglers to “bandage” women and traffic them across the border. There is little evidence to support this claim. Yet a report by the House Homeland Security Advisory Council has suggested that the way to end the exploitation of Central American children is through a policy of rapid repatriation and prolonged detention of child asylum seekers. It is a casual and inhumane approach to the horrors of exploitation and persecution.
Trump and DHS argue that to end trafficking, we must scrap the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a “loophole” that the administration says “pulls” migrants into the United States. In fact, the law was written to encourage survivors of trafficking to come out of the shadows. It allocates 5,000 “T visas” each year so migrants can get the services they need and help law enforcement prosecute those who forced them into slavery and sex work without fear of harm. expulsion.
A report I just wrote for Refugees International reveals that while Trump and DHS have condemned the abuse of women and children by smugglers and traffickers, DHS has increasingly denied T visas to precisely these victims. In early April, DHS denied a T visa to a Honduran teenager who it said had been coerced by smugglers “to perform chores, threatened and detained him while extorting money from his parents”. The boy was already receiving trafficking survivor services from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. On the same day, DHS also denied a visa to a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who was kidnapped, threatened with death and forced to work by members of the Gulf Cartel, a major Mexican criminal organization.
Some of the most poignant denials of relief relate to the abuse of “tender” children for whom the administration professes “grave” concern. Last summer, at the height of the child separation policy, DHS denied a T visa to a 4-year-old Honduran boy who was forced by masked gunmen to carry a backpack across the Rio Great as far as the United States. More recently, DHS denied a Honduran woman kidnapped by the Zetas at the border a T visa and later said she could only leave a hideout in Texas if she agreed to work at a sex club.
The Trump administration’s intention to remove protections for victims of trafficking coincides with its campaign to severely restrict asylum for those who fear persecution. On a trip to the border in April, I met a Honduran woman and her 4-year-old son near the border crossing between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. She said she fled Honduras after her husband was murdered and was also threatened.
A few weeks before we met, the woman had approached the same crossing point to seek asylum, but the administration’s “stay in Mexico” policy prevented her from doing so. She had documents proving her story which she tried to show to a US border agent at the port, but said he yelled at her that she was lying and that she would have the chance to tell a judge in immigration after a few weeks of waiting. in Mexico.
In the meantime, she came out of a shelter in Juarez to buy lunch. A man tried to take his son away from him. At her hearing in El Paso in April, she told the judge about the attempted kidnapping, but he couldn’t give her more time to find a lawyer for her next hearing in early May.
Fortunately, a lawyer working for Catholic Charities took on her case, but she still doesn’t know if she and her son will be safe in Mexico while awaiting his next court hearing in mid-summer. In short, the “stay in Mexico” policy puts asylum seekers in grave danger, which the administration does not want to acknowledge.
And these dangers are compounded by the administration’s handling of T visa applications for trafficked persons at the border. Congress intended to protect victims of trafficking, but DHS refuses to do so. The United States promises asylum to those fleeing persecution and seeking refuge from violence, but instead denies asylum seekers and sends them back to harm’s way.
The bad faith of this, the false humanitarianism, the misplaced blame, is overwhelming. I would say that is the real border crisis, but that word would better describe what could happen to those who are denied T visas and deported. Or to those asylum seekers turned back or sent back to Mexico.
To truly address this crisis, the administration should stop denying aid to those who need it most. Instead, the administration should take a victim-centered approach to counter-trafficking. And rather than deterrence and detention, the administration should devote resources to fair assessments of asylum claims.
Yael Schacher, Ph.D., is a senior U.S. attorney at Refugees International, where she focuses on U.S. asylum, U.S. refugee admissions, temporary protected status, and immigration practices that have implications for protection of refugees. Follow her on Twitter @YaelSchacher.