Arizonans join critics of Trump’s call to weaken unaccompanied minors law

A Border Patrol agent rounds up minors who tried to ilegally cross the border in Texas in this 2014 photo. The Trump administration wants to change a law that lets minors from countries that are not adjacent to the U.S. to stay longer while their cases are worked out. (Photo by Barry Bahler/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

WASHINGTON – To Kit Danley, the solution to the border crisis requires more than just politics: It requires that Americans “choose love instead of fear, and long to see Jesus in the faces of the most vulnerable” who show up at the border.

Danley, president of Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, made the comments during a conference call criticizing a Trump administration plan to weaken protections for unaccompanied migrant children who show up at the border.

Under the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, children from Canada or Mexico can be sent back across the border once officials here determine they are not being trafficked. But children from non-contiguous countries – like the Central American nations driving the current surge at the border – get to stay while border officials determine their admissibility.

But administration officials have called that a loophole that needs closing.

President Donald Trump in January urged Congress to amend the law to allow “for the safe and humane return of illegally-smuggled minors back to their families in their home countries.” And Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan told reporters in El Paso, Texas, last week that the Central American countries the children are coming from want the same thing.

“We have government partners in the Northern Triangle – in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras – who are ready to take children back and handle that humanely. Those are their citizens, they believe they have the responsibility for,” McAleenan said. “And we’re not allowed to do that under … the TVPRA.”

But Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, said the law gives minors “adequate time and support” to make a case for protection. She accused the administration of “once again targeting children” with its call to amend a law that recognizes the “unique vulnerability of children who are migrating alone.”

McAleenan told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that disparate treatment of children from Canada and Mexico, as opposed to those from non-contiguous countries, is one of the weaknesses in our laws that “represent the most significant factors impacting border security.”

Editors: Early versions of this story mischaracterized the role Neighborhood Ministries plays with unaccompanied minor children. It advocates for such children. The story has been corrected, but clients who used the original version are asked to run the correction found here.

Danley said that argument wilts in the face of the children the law affects.

“We must protect TVPRA, which is the only thing we have right now designed to protect these vulnerable children,” said Danley, whose organization advocates for those unaccompanied children. She talked about the impact of a recent trip she took to Central America.

“Nothing could have helped me see what the reality was until I personally went to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” she said. “Life is just simply not valued (there).”

Adam Estle, a Phoenix resident who works for the National Immigration Forum, has fostered a Guatemalan child who was protected by the TVPRA.

“It was a transformational experience for my kids, my wife and me,” Estle said on Wednesday’s call. “It was a chance for us to really live out our faith in a tangible way, and I know that’s the case for many other families across the country who have opened their home to these children.”

Estle added that changing the law to send immigrants back to their country of origin will not stop them from returning, which could actually lead to a greater risk of trafficking.

“Rather than preventing children from undertaking taking these harrowing journeys to the U.S., the proposed changes will cruelly require that they take these journeys, risking exploitation and harm, repeatedly in a desperate search for protection,” he said.

Danley called it “our shame as a follower of Jesus” that the U.S. practices “cruel immigration policies,” and called on Americans to support children who arrive alone at the border.

“Who will join us in protecting these children?” she asked. “These very children who need protecting are on our own steps, they’re in our own backyards.”

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