Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols drew a line in the sand. The U.S. government had issued a directive requiring border agents to deport unaccompanied children, arguing that they could be vectors and contributing to the spread of COVID-19. Nichols intervened on behalf of a 16-year-old boy fleeing violence in Honduras, extending an order preventing his deportation until further investigation. The boy would not be forcibly returned to the country where violent gangs wanted his life. At least not yet.
This is welcome news, but long overdue. Thousands of unaccompanied children have already been sent back to their home countries – countries with some of the highest child murder rates in the world – to the dangerous conditions they risked their lives to flee. Most were put on planes without due process or trafficking screenings. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, this isn’t supposed to happen. But it is.
No one is exempt from the risk of contracting COVID-19. Asymptomatic transmission means that even the healthiest and most vigorous young adults are vulnerable to the disease. Targeting these children says far more about our government’s attitude toward vulnerable children than it does about our interest in promoting public health.
And as Judge Nichols observed, the legality of the U.S. government’s actions is dubious. Congress and U.S. courts have enacted legal safeguards to protect unaccompanied children, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the Flores Settlement Agreement. It is unclear whether public health law can authorize deportations, but even if it could, Nichols indicated that he believes these protections, which are signed into law, take precedent.
Moreover, to send these children back to their home countries now is essentially a death sentence. The young man whose deportation was blocked is just one of hundreds of thousands of others who have been forced by violence to leave their homes. A 2020 report from the U.N. Refugee Agency found that global asylum claims increased by 632% from 2014 to 2019. Violence and organized crime have driven more than 300,000 people from Honduras and El Salvador alone.
Worse, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the global economy has made displaced children even more vulnerable to human trafficking. Traffickers prey on the financially desperate, deceiving them with promises of paid employment or passage across the border. State Department reports during the time of the previous U.S. financial crisis show that supply and demand for human trafficking increased, and a new report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime predicts a similar fallout from the current crisis.
As the president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, an international child protection organization, I hear these children’s stories each and every day. We work with children who have been shot, trafficked, or have seen family members be murdered before their eyes. Others have languished in refugee camps for years, without parents or legal guardians, where lack of adequate sanitation and health care has made COVID-19 an even greater threat.
You might think that after all the trauma these children have experienced that they would be hardened or incapable of caring for themselves and those around them. Yet day in and day out, the resilience and courage of children astounds us. They forge friendships, learn languages, and work hard in school. One youth, whom we welcomed last summer, was placed in the 10th grade when he arrived. But thanks to his intelligence and extraordinary work ethic, he has already graduated and is due to start classes at the local community college soon.
Children – no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have been through – deserve better than deportation to unsafe situations. They deserve a safe home and support from caring adults. Many of these children are trying to reunify with parents already in the U.S. These are families who are desperately trying to find safety, together. Public anxiety about COVID-19 shouldn’t be weaponized to keep families apart.
The fact is, we can combine safety with compassion. Border agents can screen for health and for human trafficking. They can test for COVID-19 and give these children their legal right to due process. Exaggerating public health threats at the expense of basic human rights demonstrates a lack of political will to pursue a solution that protects them both.
It also compromises our nation’s moral leadership. Putting unaccompanied children – some as young as 10 years old – on a plane back to their country when the resources, network, and even their families are available to care for them here is wrong. How can we hold other nations accountable for how they treat children in need when we put children in harm’s way and violate our own laws at the same time? Other nations are watching, and they will remember how we acted during this time.
At Bethany, our priority is always to do the next right thing. Is putting children in harm’s way ever the right thing? Surely our citizens and our nation’s leaders can agree the answer must always be “no.”
Chris Palusky is the president & CEO of Bethany Christian Services.