Virgil Wiebe Urges White House to Act Carefully on Refugee Crisis

University of St Thomas School of Law Professor Virgil Wiebe, along with a group of professors and researchers who teach or practice in the areas of immigration, human rights, and international law, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama this week, urging him to act carefully on the growing refugee emergency involving unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico.

Noting that the courts, Congress and the executive branch “have long recognized that children must be treated differently under the immigration laws due to their particular vulnerability and lesser culpability,” the letter calls on the White House to preserve and properly apply the protections allowed under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) to unaccompanied children from Central America, and to level the legal playing field for unaccompanied children before asylum officers and immigration courts rather than expediting the removal process and putting children at risk of abuse.

The letter opposes calls to modify the current treatment of Central American children under the TVPRA, which now calls for them to be cared for by child welfare organizations and allows them full access to regular removal proceedings.

Wiebe said calls to treat Central American children in a similar fashion to Mexican children is unwise.

The letter is critical of the current enforcement of TVPRA, which signatories argue pressures Mexican children to withdraw their applications for admission to the United States, does not allow these children adequate time or resources to prove their eligibility for relief from deportation, and has subjected them to abuse and mistreatment while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Weibe and the other letter writers argue that TVPRA should be carried out as the law intended for Mexican children. While there are currently fewer protections for Mexican children, even those are not being properly applied.

The letter also discourages extension of “expedited removal” to unaccompanied children, arguing that the process currently puts adult immigrants at risk of abuse and coercion at the hands of border officers, who have been given the authority to detain and deport individuals at the border with little accountability and transparency without consideration of asylum eligibility. The letter writers fear the same could happen to unaccompanied children facing an expedited removal process.

Ultimately the signatories propose that President Obama use his existing powers under section 207 of the Immigration and National Act to permit a limited number of individuals to enter the United States as refugees, calling the current situation an emergency situation that is justified by “grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

Weibe said the same idea has been applied in the past in World War II, when millions of people – most of them children – were shipped to rural areas in Britain and overseas (including the U.S.), and in the 1960s when more than 14,000 Cuban youths were provided safe sanctuary in the United States.

Read the full letter here.