Statement of Stephanie Richard, Policy and Legal Services Director at CAST

One of most vulnerable populations that CAST serves is unaccompanied alien children (UAC) who are victims of human trafficking.  A recent UN Report shows that 58% of unaccompanied minors from Central American are fleeing violence.  If this population grows to Homeland Security’s estimate of 90,000 by the end of September, it follows that approximately 50,000 children will be at risk of being returned to situations in which their lives are in danger.  Clearly, this is a humanitarian crisis.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA) of 2008 provides specific protections to UAC children.  Specifically, Section 235 gives unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries the right to receive careful screening for human rights’ abuses, including human trafficking; to be reunited with relatives in the U.S.; and to be able to present a case for legal remedies.  CAST advocated strongly for the TVPRA and has seen first-hand how Section 235 has saved children from lives of desperation, violence and modern slavery. 

The youth CAST serves are being pushed out of their home countries by human trafficking, gangs, death threats and violence.  These are children who do NOT want to join gangs or commit crimes.  In their refusal to engage in gang violence, they themselves become targets and must flee their hometowns.  In their flights of desperation, these youth are now vulnerable to the exploitation of human traffickers.  They are forced to labor against their will, oftentimes in illegal activities.  They receive no benefit from their labor and face constant threats and physical violence.  However, through collaboration across government and non-governmental organizations, there is hope for these children.

Below are just a few examples of unaccompanied minors from Central America that CAST has helped:

Martin, El Salvador

When he was 16, Martin fled El Salvador because a gang was trying to recruit him to commit murder. When the gang beat him and threatened his life, he went to Mexico, only to end up under the control of another gang.  When Martin’s friend tried to escape, he was shot in the head and burned in a garbage can while Martin watched.  Martin was then ordered to carry drugs into the United States, or else suffer the same fate. Martin was scared for his life.  When crossing the border, he found an opportunity to flee the gang and was apprehended by immigration control.  Thankfully, a legal service partner who had been trained by CAST alerted us.  We identified Martin as a victim of human trafficking, secured an Office of Refugee Resettlement letter, and helped him report the crimes to Federal Law Enforcement. 

Saul, Honduras

For several years, local gangs tried to recruit Saul by force.  They beat him, threw battery acid on him, and threatened to kill him. One day a gang attacked Saul and a female friend:  beating Saul and raping his friend.   Saul knew that if he did not join the gang, they would kill him. When Saul was 15, his mother (who lived in Los Angeles) arranged for a man to bring Saul to the United States. However, Saul was captured and trafficked in Mexico by armed men who forced him to take drugs across the border. Saul escaped the traffickers when he was apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  Terrified, Saul reported his experience to CBP and the FBI. Saul was detained in Texas until he could be reunited with his mother. Once in Los Angeles, CAST helped Saul rebuild his life by connecting him with mental health services to deal with his recurring nightmares. CAST also helped Saul receive T nonimmigrant Status. Today, Saul is in high school, where he is a student leader, with dreams of becoming a child-psychologist. His cousin was recently murdered by gang members. 

Sara, El Salvador

When Sara was about a year-and-a-half old, her mother in El Salvador abandoned her and left her with a couple who beat and abused her. When Sara was 15, men kidnapped her, raped her and forced her have sex with other men who paid them.  When she was 17, Sara was finally able to escape.  Her mother paid coyotes to take her to the United States.  When crossing the border, Sara was arrested by immigration.  She was placed in a South West Detention Center and kept there for two months.  During that time she did not see a judge or talk to a lawyer.  However, she spoke to a social worker and told her what happened.   The social worker referred her to CAST for legal services and CAST secured her T visa.  Sara is scared to go back to El Salvador because she does not want to relive the experience that she fled from.  She feels safer in the United States because she knows that the police in the U.S. will protect her. 

Given the trauma these children face at home and our borders, we need to provide specialized screening for child victims of human trafficking.  These children were identified as human trafficking victims because they interfaced with the right people.  CAST’s experience is that trafficked children will not typically self-identify and need persons trained to ask very specific questions.

We must understand the unique dynamics of human trafficking at our borders in order to properly identify children who are victims.  Children need to be asked direct questions multiple times.  They need time to open-up.  It is normal for children to be afraid and not to reveal the full extent of their experience until they feel they are in a safe place.

Child welfare specialists who have been trained in recognizing human trafficking should be deployed to surge shelters to help identify potential victims. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should be required to ask specific human trafficking questions to determine if a child has been trafficked in the U.S. or abroad. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should contract with non-governmental organizations which have experience identifying and providing services to child trafficking victims.

Once a child has been identified as a potential victim of human trafficking, ORR should expedite a request for appropriate shelter placement until a sponsor is available.  It is imperative that ORR takes precautionary steps to make sure that sponsors will care for and protect the child upon release.  Because traffickers may pose as sponsors, family relationships must receive careful scrutiny. In releasing a child, precautions should include fingerprinting the sponsors and conducting a home visit if necessary.  With the recent surge of unaccompanied children, the fingerprinting of sponsors has been suspended.  This policy needs to be reinstated because it serves a first line defense against releasing a child to a potential trafficker.

Finally, we must understand that if trafficked children are improperly returned to their home countries, they face re-traumatization and being trafficked again.  Conversely, when we are able to help children report the crimes against them, we are one step closer to stopping the cycle of violence.  The TVPRA is a critical piece of legislation that must remain intact in order to protect children and bring human traffickers to justice.