(Washington, D.C.) July 10, 2014 — As Congress considers an emergency funding request from the Obama Administration, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, national religious leaders and faith groups urge Congress to prevent the Administration from subverting critical legal protections for unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In a national faith press teleconference today moderated by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy Mary Small, United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño — who just visited the Oxnard detention facility in California — urged the President and Congress not to expedite the deportation of children.
"We are asking President Obama, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to do the right thing by providing funding for the care and due process of these migrant children — including the full implementation of the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorizations Act," said Bishop Carcaño.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) called on Congress to not let partisan politics trump the urgent the needs of children. "I have asked my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to be cautious not to make these little children a political football in a broader disagreement about immigration," she said. Rep. Lofgren is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
The national press teleconference also announced the delivery of a petition signed by more than 3,800 people of faith to the Administration and Congress calling for protection, care and legal assistance for migrant children.
"Border security, deportation and a rigid focus on the enforcement of broken immigration policies are not the answer. The answer is compassionate justice addressing the root causes of this migration of children," added Bishop Carcaño.
A regional humanitarian crisis rooted in violence and conflict
Sister Kathleen Erickson, RSM, of the Sisters of Mercy recently returned from Honduras. She stressed the root causes of violence, conflict and poverty that are driving children and families to make the treacherous journey from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
She reported that during just a few weeks while she was in San Pedro Sula, the bodies of three young people were pulled out of nearby garbage ditches. Two young boys were shot in their home on Mother's Day.
"Do politicians in the United States honestly believe that it would be safe to return these kids home? These children are not a threat to us, but I believe we are deporting them back to serious threats," Sister Erickson shared.
Rep. Lofgren also highlighted the regional nature of this humanitarian crisis with the the number of asylum applications filed in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize increasing by 712 percent from 2008 to 2013.
Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J., Executive Director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, described the incredible circumstances that children and families face. "Many children are victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse and robberies — not only in their countries of origin, but also along the way as they travel through Mexico to the northern border,” he noted.
"Don't expedite the deportation of vulnerable children"
Faith leaders expressed grave concern about any plan to grant the Administration "additional authority to exercise discretion" in order to expedite the deportation of vulnerable children, emphasizing that deporting children without individualized and proper screenings could literally mean deporting children to their deaths. In addition, leaders urged Congress to approve additional emergency funding sought by the Administration to treat children and families humanely and with adequate care.
"We discourage the President and Congress to fast track the deportation of children and give them the access they deserve to be processed, so their cases can be considered and their applications for asylum or adjustment of legal status in the U.S. can be considered," noted Rev. Carroll.
"These are children by themselves out in the desert, desperate enough to run in fear for their lives… I am heartened by the call for emergency funding made by President Obama, but also troubled by the call for 6,000 additional beds to detain families. I am troubled by the continued conviction that we can deport our way out this situation," said Rev. David Vasquez, with the Act of Love campaign at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.
The faith advocates stressed that children should be placed in settings reflecting their needs, including foster homes and community-based care rather than large institutional settings. Such solutions are far more cost-effective and grounded in child welfare and protection. Leaders called for the government to reject solutions that would result in children being unable to seek protection when they need it most.
Rep. Lofgren noted "we’ve got less than 250 immigration judges for the whole United States. By way of contrast, Los Angeles County has over 400 superior court judges. We really lack of sufficient capacity to do a case-by-case review of these children."
Adding to the legal assistance concerns, Rev Vasquez stressed, "We must provide these children with proper legal representation so that we can hear them, and when we do we’ll hear that now is the time for an act of love."
Meet urgent needs and invest in long-term community-based solutions
One of the key concerns of advocates is that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is adequately funded to meet the needs of both refugees and the dramatic increase in unaccompanied children. The Administration's request has suggested that services for refugees will be maintained, and the speakers urged Congress to support the $1.83 billion increase for ORR to meet the needs of unaccompanied children, refugees, and all populations in its care.
"Unless Congress acts to approve the additional funding request for the Office of Refugee Resettlement — included in the President's supplemental request — refugees and the communities in which they live here in the United States will suffer devastating consequences," said Sarah Ivory, a North Carolina refugee resettlement director with Church World Service. "Our nation should be proud of our history of supporting refugees, but Congress must act responsibly and uphold our obligation to both meet the needs of refugees and unaccompanied children."
While stressing the obligation of the Administration to address the current needs of unaccompanied children and families, Rev. Carroll also highlighted the need for supporting in long-term solutions. "We need to invest resources in a way that will give children and families the ability to remain free from fear in their home countries," he shared.
Rep. Lofgren added, "One of the border patrol agents told me last week, you don’t solve a refugee crisis at the American border. We need to work with our international partners and make efforts in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to stabilize the situation there so that little children and families don’t have to flee for their lives."
As faith groups continue to pray and mobilize in response to this humanitarian crisis, Bishop Carcaño also announced an interfaith weekend of prayer for unaccompanied children from July 18-20.
"These are children and as people of justice and faith, we cannot turn a blind eye or turn them away. These migrants are God's children and therefore our youngest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters for whom we must care," she added.