Ever since Congress denied funding for his border wall, President Trump has blamed Democrats for allowing smugglers to “tape up” women and traffic them over the border. There’s little evidence to support that claim. Yet, a House Homeland Security Advisory Council report suggested that the way to stop exploitation of Central American kids is to adopt a policy of swift repatriation and prolonged detention of children seeking asylum. This is an unserious and inhumane approach to the horrors of exploitation and persecution.
Trump and DHS argue that to end trafficking, we need to gut the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a “loophole” the administration says “pulls” migrants to the United States. In fact, the law was written to encourage survivors of trafficking to come out of the shadows. It allocates 5,000 “T visas” every year so migrants can get the services they need and help law enforcement prosecute those that forced them into slavery and into sex work without fear of deportation.
A report I just authored for Refugees International reveals that even as Trump and DHS have condemned the abuse of women and children by smugglers and traffickers, DHS has increasingly denied T visas to precisely those victims. In early April, DHS denied a T visa to a Honduran teenager it conceded was forced by smugglers “to perform chores, threatened him, and held him while extorting his parents for money.” The boy was already receiving trafficking survivor services from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. On the same day, DHS also denied a visa to a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who was kidnapped, threatened with death, and forced to work by members of the Gulf cartel, a major Mexican criminal organization.
Some of the most poignant denials of relief involve abuse of “tender age” children for whom the administration professes “grave” concern. Last summer, at the height of the child separation policy, DHS denied a T visa to a 4-year-old Honduran boy who was forced by armed, masked men to carry a backpack across the Rio Grande to the United States. More recently, DHS denied a T visa to a Honduran woman kidnapped by the Zetas at the border and later told she could only leave a stash house in Texas if she agreed to work at a sex club.
The Trump administration’s intention to gut protection for trafficking victims coincides with its campaign to severely restrict asylum for those in fear of persecution. On a trip to the border in April, I met a Honduran woman and her 4-year-old son standing near the border crossing between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. She said she had fled Honduras after her husband was murdered and she was likewise threatened.
A few weeks before we met, the woman had approached the same crossing to ask for asylum, but the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy kept her out. She had documents proving her story that she tried to show to a U.S. border agent at the port, but she said he yelled at her that she was lying and that she would have her chance to tell it to an immigration judge after a few weeks waiting in Mexico.
While waiting, she stepped out of a Juarez shelter to buy lunch. A man tried to take her son from her. At her hearing in El Paso in April, she told the judge about the kidnapping attempt, but he was only able to give her more time to find a lawyer for her next hearing in early May.
Luckily, a lawyer working for Catholic Charities took on her case, but she is still unsure whether she and her son will be safe in Mexico while she awaits her next hearing in mid-summer. In short, the “Remain in Mexico” policy is pushing asylum seekers into grave danger, which the administration is unwilling to recognize.
And those dangers are compounded by the way the administration is handling T visa applications for those trafficked over the border. Congress intended to protect trafficking victims, but DHS is refusing to do so. The United States promises asylum to those fleeing persecution and seeking refuge from violence, but it is instead turning asylum seekers away and returning them to danger.
The bad faith of this, the false humanitarianism, the misplaced blame, is overwhelming. I would say it is the real border crisis, but that word would better describe what could happen to those denied T visas and deported. Or to those asylum seekers turned away or returned to Mexico.
To truly address this crisis, the administration should stop denying relief to those who need it most. Instead, the administration should adopt a victim-centered approach to anti-trafficking. And rather than deterrence and detention, the administration should devote resources to fair assessments of asylum claims.