Humane Act would fast track border processing for Central American minors, allow 'voluntary returns'

Critics say proposal is anything but humane

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In response to the border crisis, a movement is underway in Congress to put Central American children on a fast track out of the United States by allowing them to return home voluntarily. But critics of the policy say it would return these children to dangerous conditions without fully informing them of their options.

Children from countries contiguous to the United States – Mexico and Canada -- are provided the option from Customs and Border Protection officials to return home voluntarily rather than face removal, a process which could ban entry into the U.S. for a period of five to 20 years.

A bill pushed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, dubbed the HUMANE Act would allow voluntary returns of all unaccompanied minors, not just those from Mexico and Canada, and create an expedited court process to determine if a child is eligible to stay in the United States.

The HUMANE Act would rewrite a 2008 Bush-era law which requires children from Central American countries to transfer from CBP to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of apprehension.

Currently, these kids are provided a guardian or sponsor to help them decide whether it’s safe to return or if they should apply for asylum or another benefit under immigration laws. This process is meant to prevent children from going right back into dangerous conditions.

Modifying the Bush law has supporters across party lines and in the White House, which has offered to work with Congress to change the 2008 statute.

“The HUMANE Act is a narrowly targeted measure to answer the pressing crisis at hand,” Conryn said. “It takes immediate steps to stop the flow of unaccompanied minors crossing into Texas and to provide relief to Texas border communities that have been disproportionately impacted.”  

But advocates for child migrants say the bill is anything but humane and oppose speeding up the immigration process for Central American children.

“I think the HUMANE Act is a little bit inaptly titled,” said Mary Giovagnoli, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

Giovagnoli says voluntary return practices already in place to deal with Mexican children are not properly implemented and that federal officials are likely telling children about the advantages of voluntary return - that if they don’t have any problems, they can just go home and won’t be detained.

“A lot of these Mexican kids are probably being voluntarily returned without having any full screening that they are required to get under law to see whether or not they are a trafficking victim,” Giovagnoli said.

The Border Patrol, which falls under the umbrella of CBP, is required to give a credible fear screening to Mexican children taken into custody. If an agent determines a child might be in danger from trafficking or persecution back home, the child is to be transferred to HHS and funneled into the immigration court system.

Gregory Z. Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the HUMANE Act will rush judges and rob child migrants of due process.

“If the HUMANE act became law, we would be seeing thousands of children returned to conditions of danger, persecution and trafficking, and literally be sending many back to their deaths,” Chen said. 

Washington correspondent Trish Choate can be reached at 202-408-2709 or Trish.Choate@Scripps.com. Follow her on Twitter at Trish_in_DC. 

Additional reporting by Marc Georges.

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