Since its founding, the United States has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those fleeing political instability, repression, violence, poverty and natural disasters. From great thinkers like Albert Einstein to prominent diplomats like Madeleine Albright to local business owners and union members, refugees have contributed greatly to our society and enriched our national fabric. We should not turn our backs on this rich tradition.
The growing number of families and children fleeing violence in Central America and turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Southern border has become a pressing humanitarian concern at the international, national and local levels. There is clear evidence that violence and the desire to find safety is the impetus for these children’s journeys to the United States. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and its neighbors Guatemala and El Salvador, are also among the highest in that category. A recent UN High Commission for Refugees investigation found that no less than 58% of the Central American children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered violence or faced threats that indicated a potential need for international protection.
The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act grants the administration the authority to designate these children as “refugees,” and we urge President Obama to ensure all children who have survived trauma or persecution are afforded this designation and have their needs met through the established procedures of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The AFL-CIO rejects any proposed changes to current procedures and law that would limit due process for vulnerable populations at the border or run counter to established U.S. and international norms regarding the detainment of children and refugees. In particular, the essential protections in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act either should be strengthened or maintained, but under no circumstances should be rolled back.
The United States has made commitments under international law to ensure individuals who are eligible for protective status will not be returned to danger. These commitments cannot be honored through expedited legal proceedings and removals. Children must be apprised of their rights in their native language and in an age-appropriate manner; screened by trained professionals for exposure or vulnerability to abuse, violence or trafficking; and provided legal counsel, not left to fend for themselves in our dysfunctional immigration system. Any measures to improve the administration’s response to this crisis must assure the appropriate frontline responders in various government agencies have the facilities, resources and support they need to meet the acute and evolving needs of the situation and that any additional resources allocated to address this refugee crisis come from new sources, rather than draining funds from pre-existing refugee resettlement needs.
While children and families are awaiting full and fair legal proceedings, they should not be subjected to discredited detention procedures. Wherever possible, children should be released to the custody of family members while their cases are being processed. Alternatives to detention, such as intensive supervision, have produced good results and been proven to be both more humane and more cost effective. This crisis must not lead to the further expansion of our massive and highly controversial private detention system.
The situation along the border is a refugee crisis that requires a humane, lawful response and must not be politicized. The AFL-CIO commits to continue working with civic leaders, clergy, refugee and immigrant rights groups, labor and other community organizations to ensure children’s health, educational, safety and legal needs are being met. The labor movement has been actively engaged in the response to this crisis already, and we will continue to make our infrastructure available to address the needs of these refugees moving forward. As we focus attention on basic human needs, we will not lend credibility to assertions that the refugee crisis is the result of lax enforcement and proof that we should continue to deport hardworking people who have been contributing members of our society for years. As a nation, we have an obligation to respond appropriately both to the refugee crisis and to the immigration crisis that keeps 11 million immigrant workers in the shadows.
Perhaps most importantly, a comprehensive approach to the refugee situation must assess the root causes of such large-scale displacement, including the long-term impact of U.S. policies on immigration, trade, development and foreign affairs. Central American nations are suffering from acute problems with violence, lawlessness and lack of decent work opportunities. Shifting U.S. foreign policy measures in the region to focus on job creation, decent work and meaningful protection of labor and human rights would reduce the “push factors” that breed desperation and drive people away from their homes and communities.
It’s striking—and tragic—that there is such urgency among our politicians to deport children but no urgency at all to protect workers in Central America. For more than two years, the Department of Labor has been sitting on a Central America Free Trade Agreement complaint filed by the AFL-CIO and Honduran unions alleging serious violations of worker rights by the government of Honduras. Had it acted promptly to address the government’s failures, the United States already could have been on the way to addressing the root causes of this crisis. Our government must play a constructive role in helping to reinstate the rule of law and eliminate rampant human and labor rights abuses in the region, or we’re going to continue to have this debate year after year.
In an effort to highlight these failures and redirect needed attention toward our failed trade model, the AFL-CIO Executive Council will organize a high-level labor delegation to investigate the root causes of the crisis and develop recommendations for addressing them. We also renew our commitment to working with partner unions in the region to end egregious rights violations and advance an economic and foreign policy agenda focused on the development of decent work and shared prosperity for all.