This year an estimated 60,000 children will cross the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians, a tenfold jump from previous years.
These young children are not, as some of our Republican colleagues suggest, fleeing their homes in Central America because of lax immigration enforcement by President Obama. On the contrary, they walk alone for hundreds of miles to escape horrific transnational gang violence, widespread rape and murder and desperate living conditions.
We are not the only country facing an influx of children escaping violent realities. The violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has produced a regional migration crisis. Indeed, Belize, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica have reported a combined 435-percent increase in asylum applications from these countries.
In Honduras — the homicide capital of the world — young boys have a one-in-300 chance of being murdered. In 2013, a Honduran woman was killed every 15 minutes. In El Salvador, 174 people were murdered in May 2013. In May 2014, that number climbed to 356. And in Guatemala, which is suffering from the spillover of Mexican drug-cartel violence, 98 percent of crimes go unprosecuted because of fear of retaliation.
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Boosting humanitarian aid at our border and exploring foreign-policy strategies to ease this migration crisis is vital. But how we care for these children will shape America’s reputation on the international stage. They endure perilous journeys to get here. Upon arriving, they are brought to detention centers ill-equipped for humanitarian crises. They face crowded conditions that leave them vulnerable to further abuse. And they are left to fend for themselves in a complex and entirely foreign immigration and deportation system.
Living up to our ideals as a nation starts with ensuring children are treated fairly. That is why this week we introduced legislation to provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors in our immigration courts.
The Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act is morally and fiscally responsible. A recent study by NERA Economic Consulting for the New York Bar Association found that the $208 million it would cost to represent every migrant child would be fully paid for by the savings generated by more efficient courts.
Similarly, the American Immigration Lawyers Association found a pilot program informing immigrants of their rights to save $20 million in court costs for every $2 million spent. In today’s overburdened system, judges often delay proceedings — and waste taxpayer dollars — when immigrants show up unprepared.
The guidance provided by attorneys improves efficiency by helping those entitled to stay get the help they need and speeding up cases when deportation is warranted.
As members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, we regularly meet with officials from Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, inundated by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees escaping mass slaughter in Syria. We praise them for keeping open borders and allowing nongovernment organizations to care for the displaced.
Our own credibility as a global human-rights leader rests on our willingness to put politics aside and make sure that the children who arrive in our country after escaping untold violence are treated with basic fairness in our courts.
Rep. Ted Deutch represents Florida’s 21st District in Congress. Rep. Karen Bass represents California’s 37th District. Both are Democrats.