Democratic congressional leaders voiced concern on Wednesday at a dramatic increase in the expulsion of migrant children and ordered in a sharply written letter that the Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Compliance Agency “cease this practice immediately.”
The letter signed by five primary immigration supervisory House members referenced a May 18 ProPublica / Texas Tribune report that showed the U.S. government had actively started to accelerate the deportations of underage children under their custody to areas where they were abducted, tortured or murdered by a adult, according to attorneys, legal records and legislative staff.
A.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, president of the Hispanic Congressional Delegation and founder of the document, said in a statement that the United States has both a legal and moral duty to shield migrant children from future violence and trafficking of human beings.
“It is appalling and unacceptable that the Trump administration is deporting and denying due process protections to the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable people — unaccompanied children who were forced to wait in Mexico for a chance at asylum in America,” Castro said. “President Trump is using the guise of public health to advance his anti-immigrant agenda.”
Four other House Democrats holding leadership positions signed the letter including Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee with DHS oversight.
The other members were Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro, who chairs a sub-committee overseeing migrant children’s health and human services appropriations; California’s Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the Homeland Security sub-committee on appropriations; and California’s Zoe Lofgren, who chairs a sub-committee on immigration and citizenship for the judiciary.
DHS could not immediately be reached for comment for response.
April Grant, an ICE spokeswoman, said in a statement that correspondence between Congress members and her agency is handled through official channels and “will be addressed by appropriate officials at the department.”
Federal authorities have stalled the release of migrant children in the U.S. to relatives in recent weeks, and have tried to deport some of them to their attorneys in late-night moves with little notice.
The government appears to be particularly focused on children who were required to stay with their families in Mexico under a controversial 2019 Trump administration program called the Migrant Protection Protocols, most of which had no access to lawyers.
As violence sprang up in Mexican border towns and some parents were assaulted, kidnapped or even killed, many children streamed into the United States alone.
Since March, according to their attorneys, the administration has sought to swiftly expel at least 15 of those children and recalled at least seven, including one who was 10.
International refugee agencies have tracked at least two children sent back in recent weeks, including a 16-year-old who had been raped by her father in Honduras, after U.S. counterparts asked them for help. One boy is locked up at a relative’s home in Honduras and said in an interview that he fears going outside because of his sexual orientation-related abuse.
Another teen was removed without notice from his counsel, even with an immigration judge promising to reopen his lawsuit.
At least six other such kids are awaiting expulsion with last-minute legal challenges after their attorneys claimed the U.S. abruptly tried to send them home on flights.
“It is especially galling that DHS would choose a time of global pandemic to target such vulnerable children, denying them access to basic due process protections and a meaningful chance to have their cases reopened and appropriately considered,” the congressional letter said.
The government has said that children are subject to deportation if they and their families have already been denied asylum under the Migrant Protection Protocols program in Mexico — even if the minors later cross the border in different circumstances on their own.
Attorneys for the administration have maintained federal law in court filings not requiring these children to receive new cases as unaccompanied minors with the broad rights that status affords.
Yet attorneys in cases around the nation contend that it is a breach of both a law of 2008 aimed at shielding migrant children from exploitation and a federal treaty of 1997 requiring the government to hold these juveniles in “safe” circumstances and to make “prompt” attempts to expel them. The attorneys argue that the government is violating the statute by not issuing a fresh refuge request to children joining the US alone.
They involve two Salvadoran girls, 8 and 11, who had moved to the Texas border with their father when local gang leaders tried to kill them, their mother and lawyers claim. In January, a United States federal judge rejected their refugee request.
The father was attacked after leaving work in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, in March.
A neighbor suspected the worse because he didn’t return for two days and advised the girls to cross the border alone and meet their mother in Houston.
U.S. officials via a government facility put them in transitional foster care and allowed their release to their parents. They were about to reunify with her in mid-May when the government abruptly moved to deport them.
The children also said that they have been perpetrators of sexual abuse in El Salvador, and the mother has told police that the only parent remaining is connected to those charges.
The mother said ICE informed consular officials in Salvador that if they had to, they could go to foster care in their home country.
The children’s pro bono attorneys opposed their removal before the supreme judge and the refugee appeals commission. ICE agreed to suspend their deportation until such time as those lawsuits were resolved, their lawyer, Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy of YMCA International Services in Houston said. This month the girls were released to their mother for a temporary period.
Congressional Democrats in the letter said the Migrant Security Protocols policy has affected several of the more than 60,000 migrants returning to Mexico under the initiative in 2019.
According to Human Rights First, an advocacy group, more than 1,100 of those have been kidnapped, raped or assaulted in Mexico including children.
The U.S. State Department has long warned against traveling to Tamaulipas state, which is bordering Texas due to crime and kidnapping, classifying it at the same level of danger as war zones like Syria.
Since 2017, the White House has been seeking to revoke legal rights for undocumented families and children that, according to the government, are unfairly permitted to live in the U.S. for years owing to immigration law loopholes.
The administration, which sought to remove undocumented parents from their children at the border until the action was stopped by federal lawsuits, is pursuing improvements to a consent agreement overseeing the treatment of migrant children and moving up their prosecutions in immigration courts.