As a relative newcomer to Utah, I have been impressed with the people’s generosity and deep commitment to charitable works, which are evident throughout the state. Utahns display a level of understanding of the Gospel call to care for the poor and the needy that is a model for the nation. This is one reason I find it so difficult to understand why Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, would propose H.R. 5137, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, which contradicts these ideals.
The bill is ostensibly in response to the surge of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America and running into the arms of U.S. Border Patrol, primarily in Texas. Rep. Chaffetz attempts to paint the bill as a humanitarian response to the question of how to care for the children, but the details of his proposal belie those claims. This proposed legislation is not about caring for children, it is about administrative and political expedience.
Among other things, the bill would add more immigration judges at the border in an effort to streamline deportations. Despite the possibility that many of the children may be victims of human trafficking, Chaffetz’s bill would roll back important provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, such as guarantees that the child will have an immigration hearing and would not be held in a detention facility for more than 72 hours.
Moreover, it would raise the showing of proof and legal standard needed for a child to attain asylum.
In essence, H.R. 5137 attempts to save time and money by locking children in cells, and then parading those children into court, without an attorney, to face an adult judge sitting high on a dais, an adult prosecutor with years of immigration law training and a justice system with which they are completely unfamiliar. The result in such a scenario is almost guaranteed — returning the child to the violence from which they fled and possible death. This is certainly not humane.
There is little reason to assign these children to a jail cell while they await processing through the legal system, and only a cynical reason for depriving them of an immigration hearing and legal representation. According to a recent study by Syracuse University, most unaccompanied minors will appear for their immigration court dates, particularly if they have a lawyer. Despite the proven efficacy of providing legal representation to minors, the bill repeals the portion of the TVPRA that ensures children have access to an attorney. Denying a minor who may be a victim of human trafficking access to legal counsel in the highly complicated realm of immigration law may make deportation proceedings more expedient, but at what cost to basic human decency?
The flow of children from Central America to the United States must be addressed, of that there is no question. However, in doing so, we Americans should not abandon our core principles and basic morality. Sending a boy or girl through streamlined court proceedings in an effort to expedite processing, rather than discern the truth about the potential risks to the child’s life is, I pray, not the American way. While the number of children now seeking protection from human traffickers, drug cartels and poverty in the U.S. may be unprecedented, our standards for due process and humane treatment for those in need is not. I urge Rep. Chaffetz and his colleagues to seek solutions that protect human life, particularly if those solutions ensure proper court processes for children seeking safety.
John C. Wester is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.