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In the past months, Americans have tuned into news coverage about the “caravan” of migrants and refugees making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, some fearful about what they have seen on their televisions. Is our country being invaded? 

Even worse, what if they are gang members or terrorists? Many are concerned about the security of the U.S. border and rightfully believe that American laws need to be followed. I agree that American laws need to be followed and believe it can be done without putting vulnerable children (or their families) in danger.

When I look at the faces of the people making their way from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, I see fellow humans. I see refugees, I see asylum-seekers, I see people who are genuinely fleeing for their lives; I see children who feel afraid, threatened and alone. They are fleeing from dictators, gang violence, starvation and countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Thankfully, the Immigration and Nationality Act plainly allows them the opportunity to apply for asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”

Nevertheless, a proclamation that went into effect on Nov. 9 bars members of the caravan, as well as everyone seeking refuge in the United States, from applying for asylum outside of official border crossings. The Department of Homeland Security issued a “myth vs. fact,” noting that the proclamation “does not limit the rights of unaccompanied alien minors.” Unfortunately, like the circumvention of the plain provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, this also proved false.

According to implementation guidelines issued by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, unaccompanied children who do not cross at official entry points will also lose asylum as a form of protection. Simply put, this policy change puts innocent kids at risk. As an organization dedicated to the well-being of children, Bethany Christian Services knows that limiting asylum will leave children more vulnerable to predators and traffickers — like one such child who experienced extreme turmoil prior to coming to the United States.

One child that Bethany workers have helped find safety in the United States describes her childhood in Guatemala — a country where more than one child is murdered every day on average — as unsafe and unstable. Her father died when she was 5 and her mother wasn’t often around. At the age of 12, she found herself forced into an abusive relationship and pregnant. Her brother helped her raise her son. Sadly, her brother was killed, and her child was taken from her.

With her life at risk, she made an incredibly painful choice, a decision she didn’t want to make: She left her family and all that she knew and fled to the United States. She describes her journey through the desert, walking day and night without much food or water, as a living hell. She was detained upon arriving in the United States and eventually placed in a foster home. She is in college now and will graduate with a degree in social work — a degree that she plans to use to serve other refugee girls in the United States.

This child sought asylum in the United States and it was granted. Under the recently announced proclamation, this child would be prohibited from even filing a claim. She would likely have been forced to return to Guatemala and the violence she had escaped.

During the final days of the current Congress, our elected officials should take three steps to protect children. First, asylum protections for unaccompanied children should be immediately restored.

Second, the bio-data of the parents, family-members and friends who claim their children from federal custody should not be shared with DHS for purposes of immigration enforcement. This policy, which went into effect in May, increases the amount of time children spend in the federal government’s custody at growing costs to taxpayers. In addition, this policy increases the risk for trafficking of unaccompanied children within the U.S., as middlemen become an option for families who are desperately seeking reunification with their children.

Finally, Congress should invest in compassionate, affordable and effective alternatives to separating or jailing asylum-seeking families, like the Family Case Management Program. Bethany helped develop FCMP, which allows kids and families to live outside of detention during their immigration proceedings for a fraction of the cost of detention beds with a 99 percent compliance rate. We can avoid inflicting unnecessary and long-lasting trauma on children.

More than 50,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border in the last 12 months alone. Each of these children are made in the image of God, each of them matter deeply to him, and each of them should matter to us. U.S. law should once again reflect the value found in each child.

 Chris Palusky is president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services.

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