Amid a renewed surge of Central American children crossing the U.S. border without their parents, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., questioned what is happening to these young people when U.S. authorities return them to their homelands.
"Did you send them back to their death?" Durbin asked at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on unaccompanied children and the administration plan for dealing the border surge. Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said that children should be returned quickly and safely, prompting Durbin to add, “safely is key.”
Returning these children to their homes — particularly in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — could be a "bad outcome," Durbin said.
“I happen to think we should be giving temporary protective status to the people coming from those three countries. We know what is going on down there, it is deadly, violent, exploitive. And sadly, the United States, in returning … these kids has to answer the question, did you send them back to their death? We never want that to happen if we can avoid it.”
The latest figures released by the Department of Homeland Security show Customs and Border Protection stopped more than double the number of unaccompanied minors along the Southwest border between October 2015 and January 2015 as they did during the same period in 2014-15. The number of families arrested for illegally crossing during the same time frame nearly tripled.
Still, the numbers are at least three times lower than those in 2014's mass exodus that led to the arrest of approximately 68,000 families and 69,000 children along the same border.
A Senate investigation last yea r found that some children who remained in the United States were exploited, and faulted the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement for a lack of oversight. In Ohio, for instance, a group of Guatemalan boys was forced into slave labor at an egg farm. Senators raised these concerns at Tuesday's hearing with a witness from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the resettlement office.
“Can you tell the committee under oath that none of the children that have been placed with a sponsor have been sexually abused, trafficked or forced into labor?” Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Mark Greenberg, acting assistant HHS secretary for children and families. When Greenberg hesitated on his response, Cornyn said, “So the answer is you cannot testify under oath that that’s not happening, because it is happening, right?”
The resettlement office estimates 87 percent of sponsors are the children's parents, who may have come here in advance of their children. HHS has developed measures to follow up with children placed with a sponsor, including a help line and follow-up calls.
Durbin recalled his experience at an agency called Heartland Alliance in Chicago, two years ago where children stay until they are placed. Three cases resonated with him: two brothers from Guatemala, a 6-year-old girl, and a 10-year-old girl and her brother with Down Syndrome.
“The folks at Heartland said, ‘We are worried about the very subject of his hearing today, we are worried that we are so overwhelmed with these kids, we cannot do the appropriate background checks on sponsors, we cannot monitor these situations to make sure these kids are not placed in the wrong setting,’” he said.
“Can you imagine what that’s like for a 6-year-old girl who only speaks Spanish?” Durbin asked about children in immigration court, especially for those without attorneys. “Representation for these kids is the right thing to do, the humane thing to do,” he said.
Durbin asked Juan Osuna, director of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, “What efforts do we make, if any, that when they do return to their home country, these children, that they’re safe?”
“Our responsibility is to hold that fair hearing," Osuna responded. "We have put procedures in place in court to make sure that we have a courtroom setting that is appropriate for children.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that was as far as the responsibility should go: “They should be, if caught, treated fairly and sent home.”
“That’s what the law says, that’s what the American people want. But, we have an administration that’s undermining, everyday, the ability of that system to work,” Sessions said.
Contact Gangitano at AlexGangitano@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @AlexGangitano. Related: Rise in Southwest Border Crossings Fueled by Desperation
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