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Protect Undocumented Children: Preserve the Wilberforce Law

Authors: Mark P. Lagon, and Patrick McCormick
July 14, 2014
Georgetown Journal of International Affairs


he humanitarian crisis currently unfolding on the southwestern border of the United States has captured public attention in recent weeks. An unprecedented number of unaccompanied children have fled extraordinary violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in search of refuge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the number of youth who have departed for the United States has effectively doubled every year since 2011, and the U.S. government projects that approximately 127,000 unaccompanied minors will reach the border by the end of fiscal year 2015. Alarmingly, these recent events have called into question the future of a law designed to protect the rights of the most vulnerable migrants of all: unaccompanied children.

At the end of June this year, President Obama released a letter to Congress in which he requested legislative support "to ensure that we have the legal authorities to maximize the impact of our efforts," including "providing the Department of Homeland Security Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador." As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest further elaborated in a press briefing the same day, "We have asked for additional resources to make sure that we can process these claims as quickly as possible." He explained that the Obama administration had therefore requested "additional authorities that could be used at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security to process the cases as, ultimately, if it is found that the child…does not have a legal right to stay in the country, that they can be returned to their home country and properly reintegrated." Specifically, the executive has requested that Congress amend the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) in order to "fast-track deportation decisions." An administration official cited in USA Today argued that the "changes are necessary to update a law that was crafted when the flow of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was far lower."

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