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Protecting victims of human trafficking - the TVPA and where the focus should really be
The U.S. Congress is poised to vote on repealing a provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that had provided legal protection for unaccompanied minor children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The provision was by no means an amnesty for unaccompanied kids, many of whom were eventually returned home: it simply gave unaccompanied children the chance to appear before an immigration judge, instead of being summarily excluded at the border. The policy was an appropriate response to the very real possibility that kids crossing the border without parents could be trafficking victims, or vulnerable to trafficking.
If there’s one thing Congress could agree on, it was the issue of slavery and trafficking. The TVPA was originally adopted in 2000 and was re-upped unanimously in 2003, 2005, and 2008 (which included the new protection for unaccompanied migrant children), and it passed by overwhelming majorities in 2013. But now that large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children have come to the U.S., the bipartisan commitment to unanimity on protecting victims of trafficking is being challenged by the pressure to be resolve the current crisis quickly.
This is a great shame. Central American children are at no less risk of trafficking today than they were in 2008, when protection for them was adopted. In fact, they are very likely at much higher risk. All three countries on the Isthmus are awash in crime, including very high levels of sexual assault of children. The Northern Triangle of Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world. The 2013 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's Global Study on Homicide has named Honduras the murder capital of the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala ranked #4 and #5.
IJM is all-too familiar with violent crime against children. Our office in Guatemala, which was established in 2005, collaborates with the Guatemalan police, prosecutors, courts and social welfare system to assist hundreds of child victims of sexual assault and to prosecute those who perpetrated crimes against them.
IJM has found the Guatemalan government to be highly motivated to protect kids, but its capacity to do so is very limited. An IJM case file review of 36,133 cases of sexual assault reported to police in a four-year period from 2008-2012 resulted in a paltry 5.8 percent reaching a judgment. The vast majority of the remainder fell by the wayside because of inadequacies in police investigations. With that kind of record, men who rape children can take comfort in the knowledge that there is almost no possibility whatsoever that they will ever see the inside of a jail cell.
Or consider El Salvador, where violence in the home and from gangs is ubiquitous. A study published by the American Immigration Council found that 59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of girls cited gang threats or violence as a reason for fleeing to the U.S. The study noted that the boys’ greatest fear was assault or murder for refusing to join a gang. The girls most feared disappearance or rape by gang members.
No doubt, there are a substantial number of children who have entered the U.S. who are not trafficking victims, rape survivors, or candidates for refugee status here. That’s what immigration judges are for: to assess the individual situation and make a law-based decision. But Congress has failed to appropriate funds for the overburdened immigration courts to process the cases from Central America.
President Obama has belatedly asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis, which includes resources to increase the number of immigration judges. Approximately $300 million is designated for increasing security in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These resources are long-overdue. Here’s hoping that a substantial portion will be used to help police protect children from sexual predators and clear poor neighborhoods of gangs.
The U.S. Congress has important work to do in coming weeks. It can designate resources to screen child migrants and protect trafficking victims and build the capacity of Central American police, prosecutors, and courts to make those countries safe and livable. But scurrying to overturn anti-trafficking protections for children when they flee their violent homes for our country should not be on the agenda. Supporting victims of trafficking and slavery, at home or abroad, has been one of the few things Members and Senators across the political spectrum can agree to. May they not throw it away lightly.