By Harry Reid, Senate Democratic Leader
The United States has a proud history of providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable populations. My commitment to carrying on this tradition is personal; my father-in-law, Israel Goldfarb, came to the United States fleeing pogroms in czarist Russia. He loved this country and the opportunities it afforded him and his family. As a nation, we must continue to protect those who, like my father-in-law, left their homes only because it was absolutely necessary to save themselves and their families.
Central America is facing a humanitarian crisis. The countries that make up the region’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—are three of the world’s most violent. They rank among the top five countries for female homicide. Tragically, rape, murder, extortion, forced disappearances, and aggressive gang recruitment have become normalized. And according to the Woodrow Wilson Center, 95 percent of crimes in the region go unpunished.
Because of this terrible violence and impunity, thousands of families and unaccompanied children have fled these countries since mid-2014. These refugees have embarked on the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, often confronting dangerous human trafficking networks and extortionists. Because they seek a better future, these children and families are all too often forced to put their lives in the hands of violent criminals.
A 2014 Fusion investigation found that 80 percent of Central American women crossing through Mexico to reach the U.S. had been raped. I cannot imagine how terrified these individuals must be to risk their lives and physical safety to reach the United States, or send their children to travel thousands of miles on their own.
I think most Americans can agree that these people are deserving of our empathy and help. Unfortunately, many have been denied the opportunity to make their case before a judge with legal representation, hurting their chances of receiving asylum and possibly resulting in death by deportation.
Given the life or death consequences associated with deportation, particularly to the Northern Triangle, we must do our part to ensure that we are not putting asylum-seeking women and children in harm’s way. I applaud the Administration’s efforts to address this crisis inside Central America, including a program allowing parents in the U.S. to petition for children under age 21 and campaigns educating potential emigrants about the dangers of human smuggling.
But more must be done to ensure that Central American refugees are protected once they are in the United States. One way to do this is by making sure that they have basic access to a lawyer. That is why I have introduced the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, which would require that every unaccompanied child and vulnerable immigrant in removal proceedings receives legal representation.
Studies show that 9 out of 10 unaccompanied minors who navigate the system without an attorney are deported, while those who do have counsel are five times more likely to be granted protection. Barriers to legal counsel should not determine whether an individual, and especially a child, lives in peace or fear for his or her life.
The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would also require DHS to ensure that immigrants at detention and border facilities have access to counsel and provide legal orientation programs so that detainees understand their rights. In an effort to improve accountability, this bill would require DHS to report how many qualifying individuals actually received counsel. These measures will help ensure that the credible claims of asylum seekers are heard, not ignored.
Central America is facing a serious humanitarian crisis that has forced thousands families and children to turn to our country seeking help. We must respond with empathy and in accordance with our American values. We must continue our nation’s proud tradition of helping those fleeing violence and persecution.
Turning our backs on Central American families and unaccompanied children, as some congressional Republicans have proposed, would be a grave mistake. Providing due process protections to children should be something we can all agree on. I call on my Republican colleagues to join Democrats in support of the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act to provide legal protection to society’s most vulnerable.
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